Remembering Schooltopia: Fostering Inclusive Fifth Graders through Project-Based Learning & Collaboration

Lately I’ve been having a lot of school dreams.  The plot lines are usually illogical and impossible to follow, but they have one thing in common: I am surrounded by lots of people with no need to concern myself with six feet of social distance.  Perhaps this means we are all ready for a trip down memory lane, when our classes didn’t take place over google hangout and when we were all forced to wear actual pants.  Perhaps this means it’s time to look behind us so that we can begin to imagine what is to come.

Fifth graders beam with pride as they show off their research-informed classroom design for students with learning differences.

 At a North Campus Wednesday morning PD session that feels like it took place, not simply years ago, but in a parallel universe, you may recall that our very own Margaret Taylor wowed the room with her innovative approach to integrating project-based-learning, collaboration, and a commitment to inclusivity through an experience she called “Schooltopia.” The PBL unit asked small groups of fifth graders to learn about one focal learning difference and then design a classroom to better accommodate students with that difference, culminating in a student poster exhibition for a mix of upper school students, faculty, and administrators.  We promised to follow up on the blog with more details, and although this follow up was a tad delayed by, well, a global pandemic, better late than never!  Without further ado, here’s the scoop on Schooltopia:

How did you come up with Schooltopia as a concept?

Last year around Thanksgiving I was approached with taking a more of an ethical spin to my writing class and making it a little bit more citizenship focused [with] an ethical base kind of along with the Episcopal tradition of trying to morally instruct kids too. And I got a lot of cool topics about vegetarianism and all these big picture things that 10 year olds could not handle and things that I knew if we talked about them in class they would be saying things they heard their parents say.  So my task was really to try to figure out how to talk about inclusion and all of these big items in a fifth grade appropriate way. And that led me to Zootopia.

One of my favorite kid movies .. . that “Try Everything” song is so catchy!  So how did you use Zootopia as a springboard into some important issues? 

So when we watched Zootopia, they had a little sheet for me and they had to mark what they saw. So like if they saw an example of inclusion, they would put a little “i” and describe the scene. Or if they saw something like discrimination, they would put a little “d,” and then if they knew it was something good, they could just put a “g.”  Or if they knew something bad, they would just put a “b”. And so about every five to ten minutes in the movie, I’d pause it and we’d say, “Okay, what did you see?” And we talked through it. 

Oh interesting.  So what did they tend to notice?

The thing that stood out to me is that the kids mostly noticed the environment more than they noticed characters. So in one of them when Judy Hops first gets to Zootopia, there’s this smoothie stand and it has this little bank teller shoot that goes up to give the smoothie to the giraffe.  And then there’s one that goes down to give it to the hamster. I mean in all of my blocks, they were all like “That smoothie stand though.” And so it really made me realize that they were noticing actual spaces and they’re like, “There isn’t a different smoothie stand for the giraffes or the hamsters. It’s the same one that they all kind of come to.”

Fascinating. But what does all of this have to do with your Schooltopia project?

That kind of started this whole idea of like, well, what if we made a perfect school? Because that’s taking something that they can be experts in, because they go to school and they’re here every day. And then it’s also giving them the power to look at what inclusivity is in the classroom. 

That sounds amazing, like something I would have assigned to college students who are studying to become a teacher. But was this a little daunting for fifth graders?  How did you get them ready to think this big?

We piloted it over Halloween with something called Monstertopia where I gave them little fake profiles of Frankenstein’s Monster and Vlad the Vampire; they all had different needs. And so I gave them the list of these characters and their needs. You know, the mummy wants to be near the werewolf and the witches have to have garlic in their garden so they don’t need to be near the vampire and all of that. Then they had to draw a town square. So they kind of had a little light way to introduce the idea of making an inclusive space for everybody before we actually jumped into the school aspect of it.

Designing Monstertopia: a town that is inclusive of all the monster needs.

Oh what a smart way to ease them into it! Sounds like you had a master plan all along . . . I’m impressed!

One of my mentors in grad school said your first year of teaching, you stay an hour ahead on planning.   Your second year of teaching, you stay a class period ahead, and your third year you get to stay a full day ahead as far as planning. And I think I was definitely in that range.  No need to be an overachiever. 

Fair!  Speaking of time and planning, how many days did students spend on this project?

Wow. I would say I probably spent about three and a half weeks because there was the research component, they had to make a rough draft of their poster for their classroom, they had to make their final draft, you know, their mock up of their classroom, and then there was a written kind of paper component to it, which ended up being like a 12 slide presentation

That’s a huge investment of time!  Well let’s get to nuts and bolts.  How did you initially get them into groups?

So really my thought was trying to figure out how to get groups where there couldn’t be somebody who could railroad the whole thing and take it over because I feel like, especially developmentally in the fifth grade you have the go getter who’s like, “Oh, I’ve got this” and you have the kid that is very eager for somebody else to get this.  So they got to [share with me their preferences for] their groups. They could tell me two people that they really wanted to work with and maybe one person that it would not be a good idea for them to work with. And then they also had to tell me a little bit information about what kind of classroom they were interested in building. But I had the final say and like who went where and how that happened. 

Sounds smart . . . giving them choice but maintaining control.  Managing group work can be really difficult in projects like this.  How did you ensure things went smoothly?

So once they had their groups, I had to figure out how to make there not be [just] one person in charge. And that’s where the idea of the different specialists came in. Most of my groups had four people in them, and that let two people be student specialists and they were in charge of the student needs.  Then there were two people who are my room specialists, and so they were in charge of making sure that the content area that was being taught in that room was on point. 

Another thing that I found to be really successful was the “goal for the day” sheets.  Every day at the start of class, I would give out our marching orders and they’d come up with their goal for the day and they would assign group roles, you know, “so and so is going to do this; I’m going to do this.”  Then the last five minutes of class we spent finishing out the goal for the day sheet: “what did we actually accomplish?” It was a really neat incentive that I wasn’t expecting.  They had to self assign homework. I would be like, “This is the goal for the day.  If you don’t get to it, you need to figure out how to have it done by the next class period.” I would say out of 20 groups, I only had two or three groups actually have homework because they would want to get in and get it done, which was nice.

Love hearing how you helped scaffold this big project into bite-sized chunks with those “goal of the day” sheets! Can you give us examples of the sorts of marching orders you gave for a class? 

I would say they looked different, you know, so some days it could just be like, “Hey, the poster is due in three days; work on your poster.” Or with their articles, they had like reflection sheets for their articles so I could be like, “Hey, read through the article, highlight it up, make notes on it. You know, it would be great if you could finish this reflection on the article.”  In the slide portion of it, each student was responsible for like at least two slides. And so it’d be like, “Hey, do your two sides.” or “Hey, you need to go back and revise your slides. You need to read each other’s slides.”  Things like that. I’m such a big picture person. It’s hard for me to be like, “You need to finish this today.”  And so I think it was a real growth experience for me to kind of think as an educator like, “Okay, at the end of the day what do they need to actually have accomplished?” as opposed to, “Hey, you need to work on this. It’s due in two days,” making it. . . bite-sized.  And if you follow these steps, you’ll get here at the end. I really found a lot of benefit in kind of giving them those concrete marching orders, but also [saying]: “Hey, if you don’t finish it, you can do it for homework.”

Margaret Taylor provides marching orders for the day: find links for the actual furniture and technologies that you would want for your classroom and then go to the library to print out images for your research folder.

Thanks!  That helps.  What else would you do as you circulated during their actual work time?

I would say fifth graders have not quite mastered the art of looking busy. And so there’s a lot of times you can walk around and you can see 75% of the group is all in it. They’re out there and then there’s maybe one kid that’s doing stuff. Yes. As being a bit of a space cadet. And so I think I spent a lot of time walking around and just kind of check up like, “Okay, what’s everybody’s role right now?” Just to check in. “So and so what are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?” And then if somebody was honest and said “I’m not really doing much,” then there would be a conversation that was like, “Okay, so like what could we be doing right now?”  Or, you know, to kind of say, “So and so, you’re doing this; is that something that y’all can tag team?”

I would honestly kind of walk around and be like, “I’m hearing so-and-so’s voice a ton. What else are we hearing? Like what else? What else are people thinking?” Because I feel like most of the time I could help the kids who weren’t necessarily doing anything.  They then felt better because they had a task, they felt more involved and you know, maybe the kids that I was like, “Okay, so what have you been doing?” They got their little, you know, 45 seconds to like talk and tell me what they were up to, which was nice.

Great strategies. Now give us some real talk.  How did the kids actually take up working in groups? 

When you have students semi self selecting a group, you can kind of just from knowing them for two and a half quarters say like, “Okay, they’re going to be great, they got this, they’re good.” And then you have other groups that you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to spend a little bit more time hanging out at their table.” So I mean I feel like overall that was the experience. I would say I had a few students who I knew would try to drive the project. But luckily I feel like I put enough limitations where, you know, if they would try to step in, another student would be like, “Hey, no, I’m the student specialist, you’re the room specialist.”  I really encourage the students to take power.  Like you are the expert on this. You need to listen to other ideas, but at the end of the day, [you are in charge of this part.]

It does keep going back to “how can we work in a group together” doesn’t it?  How did you help kids through the inevitable little conflicts that came up?

When they were kind of first in their groups, I made them [write] two ways that they’re going to handle conflict.  And that was fascinating because you had some groups that were like, “Well,  everybody will get 30 seconds to talk about their position and then we’ll vote on it.” Other people were like, “We’re gonna table it and then we’ll come back to it at the end of class.”  With other people, “It’s like rock, paper, scissors. If you lose, you lose.”

 I had a group that had a lot of conflict, and there were tears. And so I was like, “How are we handling conflict in our binder?” And so they opened up their little work folder and it was clear they had not taken that aspect terribly seriously. And so I think that their way to handle conflict was like “yell the loudest.” And so it was funny and none of them wanted to read it.  And I think especially with that group, one of the troubles of self selecting was they were with their friends so they had a level of comfort with each other that they would not have had if they were randomly assigned. So I think students could come off a lot harsher than they meant to by what they called joking, saying things they didn’t necessarily mean.  They would say things to their friends that if they were not with their friend, they wouldn’t have said.  They needed to kind of figure out how to be diplomatic. I think a lot for these kids was just having to like learn other ways to say “no, that’s a stupid idea,” in a kinder way, like “Tell me more about that.. . Do you think it makes sense for there to be a computer in the bathroom?”

So I feel like there was also, you know, just natural conflict of being stuck with the same four people for three and a half weeks. You know, somebody accidentally starts coloring the floor of the poster with the light brown and “we were going to do the dark brown and now the whole project’s ruined!” Yes. So also learning forgiveness and talking about groups of, “do you think that that person intentionally is trying to make you all fail this poster project . . . or do you think that like accidents happen?”

Sounds like you engaged in really great conversations.  But are you sure that students always told the truth about how working in the group was going? Sometimes they try to protect their friends from getting in trouble . . . 

The other thing that I did was about halfway through, I made them a private Google Form, a group check-in. It was, “Hey, who are you? Who’s in your group? Do you feel like your voice is heard? What are some things that are going well? What are some things that are not going well? Would you like me to come and just of surprise conference with your group? And if so, what would you like for me to talk about?”  Afterwards we did a think pair share.  I pulled up the anonymous data.  It was like 40 kids that said “yes”; they felt that their voice was heard and it was all great.  This project is awesome. And then I had like 25 kids say like, “I guess my voice is heard. I don’t really think so sometimes.” And so then I had those other 15 kids that were like, “No, my voice is not heard.”  So on one board I asked “What piece of advice would you give to the person who said they don’t feel like their voice is heard?”  And they talked about this in different groups from their Schooltopia group. And then on the other board I wrote: “If your voice is being heard, What are two ways you can help listen to other people today?” 

You know, something I’m noticing is you started this conversation explaining your goal was to help students engage in ethical exploration, and you did that through inclusion themes, but also I think actually a lot of the real ethical socioemotional stuff happened in the micro moment during this group work. So it’s beautiful that it was wrapping around in different ways. What kind of texts and experiences did you use throughout Schooltopia to help youth explore issues of inclusion?

The first thing they had to [do was] research their classrooms. It was important to me to have them actually looking at big kid articles. You know, I pulled articles that as a teacher I would google, you know, “How to Set up a Classroom that Benefits Dyslexic Students”, “10 Top Tips for a Successful Science Classroom.” You know, things like that that I was actually pulling; not necessarily academic articles, but the grownup resources that I [found useful].

Then I feel like we had a really cool discussion about student differences. I tried to set up a like, “Hey, this is a very open thing.”  I start off the conversation because I’m dyslexic. And then my sister wears a hearing aid. She’s partially deaf in her left ear and my brother has a vision problem. He’s partially blind in one eye. So, I mean, in some ways it worked really well to be able to talk about all of these student differences and be able to use real life examples. So I felt like that opened [them] up a lot. You know, all my students who have ADHD were like, “Oh, I have ADHD!” So then we were able to be like, “Well if you don’t mind sharing,  what’s helpful for you in a classroom”. Or you know, if a group picked [ADHD], they would read the article and then be like, “Oh Ms. Taylor I didn’t think about this, but like, yeah, if I sit near a window, I do get distracted.”

Interesting! So this project didn’t just lead to more inclusivity; in some cases, it led to greater self awareness.  What other types of difference did students explore?

One of the student profiles that isn’t the biggest demographic at St. Andrew’s that they had the opportunity to build a classroom for was a refugee from another country or an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. Only a handful of my groups actually picked that student to focus on. But we had some really neat conversations based on that. Most of my teams that picked an ESL student chose a history classroom because they made the connection that that’s where a student would maybe feel comfortable because of talk about cultures and history and geography.  They could teach us so much about their home country and things like that.

So far we’ve only talked about the invisible parts of the project, all the in class work that you and your students did together to prepare for the public event featuring groups sharing their visions for school.  But now let’s talk about the exciting showcase of ideas.  Was it scary to have a real audience for this?

The age old struggle with teaching writing is the notion that you write something, you do something, you’re so proud of it and then it just hangs out in your Google drive. Like I’ll read it, I’ll be like, “That’s so cool. I love this part. The end. Awesome.”  We may have a day where we share with our friends, but you’ve already shared it with your friends. So I really wanted them to have an authentic audience because that’s the whole thing about writing, right, is an authentic audience. And then the other part of me wanted them to have some skin in the game of “Yeah, your group needs to have things together because you’re going to be presenting these to some big scary adults that you don’t know, you know?”  So I really wanted them to take ownership over the project. 

There was a huge crowd of different school stakeholders there that afternoon!  How did you get people to attend?  And how did you prepare fifth graders to be so confident with the crowd?

I had kind of been telling them “I’m going to get some people from my i2 committee to come and see and talk to y’all. But it really snowballed into like this, like Hallmark movie of school community. It felt like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when everybody started coming in and yeah, Clarence’s bells were ringing beautifully.  It really was so special.   To get this going I sent out a Google invite to a bunch of people and I did a little, “Hey, this is what’s going on.”

Then it occurred to me that if I get a bunch of well-meaning adults and a bunch of really scared children, the depth of conversation is probably not going to reach what I would want it to reach.

So we spent about a class period and a half where I wrote potential questions on the board, you know, little things from like “what are some ways that you incorporated the needs of your students?”  There were two questions about their research and I told them that as an adult, that’s what I would want to know. So you need to be able to be able to pull a quote, tell me about your article. Research is one of the most important things because it makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’ve read actual articles on these things. So they had a class period and a half to ask each other questions and we even did a little mock thing where they would hop around the room and interview each other and all that. And so I printed out those questions and just in a little kind of pamphlet type thing and handed it to my adults when they came in and I said, “Okay, these are the questions, ask them anything and please ask them anything. But also this is what they should all feel very comfortable answering.” 

They were great questions that I appreciated receiving on the audience end as well; conversation starters are the best.  I was just so impressed by how confident the fifth graders were with their answers.

Yes. There’s a little bit of predictability for them. It’s scary, yes. I was joking right before it; I was texting with my sister and I was like, “Man, you know, it’s just nerve wracking giving a hot mic to 79 ten year olds, you know, and they’re gonna walk around and talk to administration and faculty” and it was great. Megan got some upper school students too and that was so much fun. It’s so hard because I can’t be in on 20 different conferences. I just have got to turn them loose for them to tell the people who cut my paycheck every month exactly what they’ve been doing in school this quarter and all that. 

One fifth grade group, ready and waiting for the crowd of visitors to come.

Terrifying, but also doable I think because they didn’t have to stand in front of the entire crowd to formally present.  They were small roundtable conversations.

Yes!  I told my sister, “the good thing about it is if one group really messes up, it will only be with one or two adults.” It’s not like they’re getting up in front of the whole school and that, and I knew the kind of adults I have at St. Andrew’s that they would help it be a good learning experience and would help kind of steer it. So it had kind of a neat little mentorship piece to it. 

What did the students say about the experience after the fact?

So the next class period we were together, I said, “Okay, how’d it go? Tell me about it.” It was really cute because so many students felt heard. I heard from several groups that [the adults that visited their poster] got it. Wow. And then even I had one group who had made a literature classroom and I think it was Ruth Holmes that asked them what their favorite book was.  They kind of did a book swap and she wrote down some of [their recommendations]; it was just a really cool kind of cross generational, I don’t know, just sharing of knowledge and listening.

Going on a trip through memory lane via my months-old conversation with Margaret gave me all the feels.  And while doing a project shoulder-to-shoulder may feel like an impossibility right now, I do believe we can all use Margaret’s advice to inform how we scaffold virtual collaboration for an authentic audience.  After all, technology mediates a host of authentic audience possibilities and the education world is abuzz right now with the possibilities of replacing traditional tests with larger projects.  

Interested in getting some support for designing a large scale, inquiry-based project like this one for the next school year? Here’s a link to some of Margaret’s Schooltopia teaching resources to get you thinking. Also stay tuned: within a week or so, we will be announcing an exciting i2 funded faculty opportunity to support this reimagining!

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