Our Stories

Making Thinking Visible Through the Use of Materials

May 4, 2016 by Laura Cohen (Faculty and Staff)

If you walk in the front door of South Campus this week, you might see First Grade students and teachers digging through big boxes and recyclables to be used for prototypes of homes in a polar climate. You also might see Kindergarten students manipulating clay to create their final model of a queen bee. In the sadnah (studio), you might overhear a Pre-Kindergartner explaining to a peer her plan to cut the fabric she found into the perfect bimah (platform) for the synagogue her class is creating. All of these moments are a part of the South Campus preparation for the upcoming Batim Patuchim (Open Houses), when the students will share months of their in-depth studies with their families.

The Value of Documentation

Documenting the learning process is an essential way to make the students’ learning and thinking visible. As the students researched topics of study, engaged in dialogues, and shared new understandings, teachers and students created traces of this learning to document the research process. Documentation can have varying intended audiences and as a result, can take on many forms. In some cases, documentation is created during the learning process for students to reflect on their learning along the way and value the many steps that lead them to a final product. When the students look at photographs of their work and revisit class dialogues and quotes they’ve shared, they are able gain a deeper understanding of the process and provide a different lens through which they view their own work. Other times, the intended audience can be visitors to the school or other members of the school community. In this case, documentation can be used as a window into a class’ project and helps make the learning in a classroom visible to others. By sharing the process, outsiders can gain a clearer understanding of the powerful work that leads to a final project. The act of creating documentation is a crucial experience for educators as it allows them to reflect on the students’ work and often leads to recognizing nuances in the work they might otherwise overlook. Through recording conversations, taking photographs, and writing narratives describing the work, educators are able take a deeper look and more closely observe all that is happening in the classroom. In all cases, documentation elevates the students work and sends the message to students that their work is valued and worth sharing. From the youngest ages, students begin to recognize that their work is meaningful and that the journey of inquiry is as important as the final product.

Expression Through Materials

As the students navigated through different units of study in each grade, they were challenged to extend their learning and find ways to represent their understanding of the new information through the use of materials. While visiting The Opal School in Portland, Oregon last winter, I was struck by their use of materials and the way in which these materials were used to extend the students’ thinking. The Opal School explained that “students discover relationships across ideas, perspectives, and disciplines,” helping them to construct meaning. Inspired by the Opal School’s approach and recognizing the similarity to the work we’ve been doing at JPDS-NC for years, we have continued to further explore this concept. Increasingly, we see that the materials helped to make the students’ thinking visible and provided a method of documenting the students’ learning. The process of manipulating materials can evoke ideas and help to clarify students’ thinking. For many children, they are able to explain and represent their thinking better with materials than with words.

A Look Back

During our first semester, the Pre-Kindergarten students began exploring the concept of identity. They first understood this concretely by looking at their own physical characteristics and then abstractly, by expanding their thinking to include inner character and personality. Linking their study of Noah’s Ark with the study of identity, children used repurposed supplies to construct an animal that each child felt represented their own personality traits. One child identified with the word freedom and decided a butterfly encompasses this trait. While creating her butterfly sculpture, she added big wings made out of a plastic egg carton to show how these wings help the butterfly soar in the sky and explore with curiosity. Another child created a giraffe who stood tall with a long neck made out of a cardboard tube. The child shared that he likes to protect his family, just as a giraffe’s size allows him to be protected from other animals. Through the construction of these sculptures, the children deepened their understanding of how their identity can be symbolized. The students measured the materials, ensuring the details on their animals were created proportionally, and experienced the process of trial and error as it often took many tries to find the perfect pieces to fit on their animals.

In Kindergarten, students learned about their own classroom community and the larger JPDS-NC community. They deepened their understanding of community through the reconstruction of the South Campus community library. Using the Design Thinking Process, students identified the needs of the community and began constructing prototypes of new book shelves, developed a categorizing system, and created a cozy reading area. Using resources such as cardboard, tape, buttons, and beads, the students brainstormed possible designs and transferred their ideas into models. As their visions came to life, many realized they had left out important details in their original ideas and represented these changes as they added more materials. After discussing the prototypes, the class eventually decided on a final plan and got to work to construct the final products using wood. Through this process, the students were able to document their planning process through sketches and photographs. Their thinking was made visible as some children found it easier to articulate their ideas by constructing, rather than explaining or sketching.

For First Graders, Rock Creek Park’s 125th anniversary inspired a study of the park and led to a semester-long investigation of the history of the park, the native flora and fauna, and the current problems facing the park. After an in-depth investigation of these topics, the students in all three classes thought about ways to represent the information they learned. In one class, the students focused on the adaptations of Rock Creek Park’s native animals over time and used clay to demonstrate their understanding of these changes. As the students scrutinized photographs, researched information, and wrote fables about these animals, they quickly became experts. Some children created multiple iterations of the animals to exhibit the progressive changes while other created one animal in its current form after it had gone through the many adaptions. This provided the students an opportunity to connect to the content in a hands-on way. Additionally, the clay provided the students an opportunity to strengthen their fine motor skills, experience the need for patience, and explore balance.

Looking Ahead

In the coming month, Pre-K, Kindergarten, and First Grade will be highlighting their learning again on South Campus as each grade exhibits their work at the upcoming Batim Patuchim (Open Houses).

In Pre-K, the students continued to explore the theme of identity this semester and expanded their research to include their family identity. The students explored their own family histories and captured the unique qualities of their families, recognizing how this contributes to each of their own unique identities. The students continued to explore the concept of symbolism this semester as they designed a family coat-of-arms with symbols representing their family. As part of their study of synagogues, the students visited synagogues in the area, gathering research about the important components that they noticed on each visit. After learning about each part of a synagogue, the students worked in small groups to apply this newly acquired information and create their own versions of a synagogues out of repurposed materials.

The Kindergarten students will be welcoming families to join them in the new South Campus community garden as the students share their study of social insects and draw connections between these insect communities and our own JPDS-NC community. The culmination of the year’s study of community led the Kindergarteners to work together to create a garden that both provides a home for the social insects in our backyard as well as provides a gathering place for the JPDS-NC South Campus community. The students will also sing Hebrew songs and showcase sculptures of various vehicles as they highlight the new vocabulary they have learned as part of their transportation unit.

After researching and learning about each climate, the First Grade students used this newly acquired knowledge to design homes, jobs, and clothing for various climates and regions of the world. Using the Design Thinking model, the students were able to empathize with the people living in these regions and worked together in teams to come up with multiple designs that could accommodate the needs of the people. After critiquing one another’s plans, the groups made final designs and used recycled and collected materials in the sadnah (studio) to construct prototypes of their models. As part of this unit, the students explored climate through the introduction of multiple writing genres. The students wrote fictional autobiographies about people living in each climate, composed persuasive writing pieces and made convincing arguments for why one climate was the best climate to live, and wrote poems related to their research. This writing will be highlighted in each child’s portfolio and will be read aloud to visitors as part of the upcoming exhibition.

All of this work (and more) will be on display over the next three weeks at the South Campus. We invite you to explore the process the students experienced this semester by taking a close look at the documentation on display, as well as to enjoy the final products that culminated as part of these rich units of study.