By Kate McElvaney
What do birds, rockets, Amelia Earhart, and Newton’s third law of motion have in common? They are topics pre-K – eighth grade students chose to study as part of High Meadows School’s recent school-wide unit on Flight. Once a year, all students explore a topic at the same time in an experience called “Emphasis”, which is unique to the school.
“It’s amazing to see what students studied,” said Jay Underwood, Head of School. “I learned about the Bernouli principle from a fifth grader and how fuel is stored and activated in a rocket from a kindergartener. It was the perfect demonstration of how beautiful and elegant learning can be.”
The Emphasis topic is selected each year by teachers from each grade who look at how it can be studied in different grade levels. It is a closely-guarded secret until the three-week unit begins. Each classroom interprets the topic based on students’ skills, inquiries, and interests. Studies culminate in Emphasis Night when students, parents, and community members see how classes approached the topic.
Different grades approached the topic in ways that were developmentally appropriate for them. Younger students made drawings or models of planes and rockets, while older students experimented with flight paths and studied forces of flight.
Developing Students’ Voices
Providing students with regular opportunities to develop their voice and intellect helps build students’ abilities to make a difference in their worlds. Curiosity is innate in all of us. When schools capitalize on student interests and increase student agency, particularly to drive their learning, students discover what they are capable of achieving for themselves. This recognition soon moves to the world, where students’ curiosity and agency will support them as they apply their skills and knowledge to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.
Unpacking the Topics Together
Once the Emphasis topic is announced, teachers plan with students and follow their thinking to
see where inquiries go. In younger grades, classes learn together.
“We had hot air balloons on the ceiling,” said Hannah, a pre-K student. “We learned about birds and how to draw them.”
Early female pilots were popular in Early Years.
“I really liked learning about Amelia Earhart because she was a strong person and didn’t give up!” said first-grader Kennedy.
Kevin, another first-grade student agreed.
“I didn’t know that Amelia Earhart or Bessie Coleman existed,” said Kevin, a first grader. “They did something that a lot of people didn’t think they could do.”
Students and teachers in Elementary Years classes share ideas, brainstorm what they know about the topic, and discuss what they want to learn. Teachers listen to areas kids gravitate to and work together to plan activities.
“We had a classroom challenge to present information without computers,” said Sadie, a fourth grader. “We used fishing line, poked a hole in a Dixie cup, and used a straw in the hole. We blew up a balloon, kept the string tight, and moved the rocket.”
Gavri, a fourth grader, made a rocket and studied its flight. “We found the average of three throws. It’s cool to do hands-on-experiments.”
Middle Years students suggest what they want to study and plan activities. One group researched military planes, while others studied birds or mythical creatures.
Students Showcase Their Learning
For Emphasis Night, students put together a project to highlight their learning. They gain valuable experience tailoring information to and answering questions from students of all ages, parents, and teachers. Practicing using an authentic voice with real audiences helps them prepare for the future in and out of school.
“Emphasis is a great time of the year,” said Jack, a fourth grader. “You’re supposed to think out of the box, be open-minded, and try new things. You do your own research, take that in, and create a project. You are not sitting in a room with a textbook.
About the contributor: Kate McElvaney is the director of the High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning.
High Meadows School is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian school in Roswell, GA with an emphasis on learning through inquiry and experience, making meaningful connections, embracing diversity, and stewarding the natural environment. A nationally recognized and award-winning leader in progressive education, High Meadows School is an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School offering its renowned Primary Years Programme. Visit: highmeadows.org
This article originally appeared on PEN: The Quarterly Journal of the Progressive Education Network.