In My Classroom: Place-Based Learning at Cold Spring School

At the end of every Seedlings summer workshop, participants are asked to fill out a feedback form, in part to inform our understanding of the learning that occurred for teachers during the week. Among the themes that emerge are invariably an ambition to make use of local resources and a renewed commitment to an integrated approach to teaching. The fort project that Cold Spring School (CSS) teachers and SEC facilitators/alumni Joshua Sloat, Karen Zwick, and Laura Sheinkopf crafted for their 4th and 5th grade students is a prime example of project-based learning and integration in action, facilitated by the involvement of an amazing local resource, The Yale School of Architecture. To read an overview of the project, check out an earlier blog entry here.

Every summer, we also receive feedback that goes something like this, “Help!!! I believe in this and am motivated to make it happen in my classroom, but I need help implementing it.” All teachers must work within certain constraints (time, materials, energy) that can make it challenging to put SEC thinking and work into action. Some have additional layers of complication. The aim in examining this CSS project in depth is not to suggest that you would want or even be able to replicate it in your classroom, but rather to honor the work of students and teachers, take a look at the messiness involved in the learning process and uncover some of the take-aways that could empower you to take steps toward putting your SEC thinking into action. Much of this may be reflective of what you already have in your wheelhouse, but seeing it in action reaffirms the power of this process.

To get started, let’s take a look at the final product of this CSS fort project: one group’s presentation of their concept and model to “critics” including local professional architects, CSS board members, members of the school’s administration, and fellow classmates.



So how did this process unfold? What were the structures and supports in place that drew children into this project and made it a success? Choose your own adventure by selecting which anchoring theme(s) you would like to explore further: purpose, continuity, and the sequencing of lessons.

Starting with a Purpose

When asked about how this project developed, Joshua shared that he and his colleagues had wanted to craft an experience for students in which they would need to present their learning and work to an authentic audience. It struck me that this first response was not about the skills and knowledge he intended for his students to acquire, but rather about defining the purpose of the learning. To what end would the learning be put to use? This is too often a question that we forget to ask ourselves as we create lesson plans and plan daily activities to teach and reinforce the skills we are held accountable for imparting in our students. As you will see, skills and direct instruction certainly played important roles in the course of this project, but they were grounded in a clear and meaningful purpose in the students’ learning.

From their very first session with the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA) students, the CSS students were eager learners and active participants. However, in the second work session, when Laura shared with the CSS students the reason for their collaboration, the mood shifted from interested student to joyful and driven learner. Watch the reaction of the students when Laura revealed the project.


Listen to one child’s initial thoughts on what kind of fort the school community could use:

These are simple, powerful illustrations of the role purpose and connection with community serve in the engagement of students in the learning process.

In subsequent sessions, the CSS teachers and I noted that the students seemed to settle into the instructional time with a greater sense of urgency.

Throughout the work periods, they were laser focused.

Students talked about their projects and continued working on them outside of assigned class time. A great many hands-on learning experiences can increase student engagement, but when a project has real application in students’ lives and communities, there comes a point when, in the words of CSS Director Arati Pandit, “teachers sometimes just have to get out of the way” – the learning takes on a life of its own.

Where constructing a student-designed fort may not be a possibility in many school settings, in what ways can you craft projects such that they have some kind of real-life benefit to the community? Or, in what way can you simulate a real-life application? CSS teachers were never certain, for example, that any fort would be selected or constructed in reality, and of course shared this openly with the students; but the act of mimicking the work of architects for an application that they could imagine having an impact on their community fed the learning such that it did take on a life of its own. Remember the Straw Towers project at Seedlings? Can you remember how energizing it was to imagine that we were a team of engineers selected to design a tower for the City of New Haven? What if we had simply been challenged to create the tallest tower we could?



What became clear over the course of these several weeks was that the teachers had done some careful crafting that made it possible for them to “get out of the way”: They had seamlessly woven in threads of continuity throughout the various components of the project.

We’ve all seen the enthusiasm that children bring into the classroom around certain interests from outside of school – Pokeman; the newest Disney release. We may consider ways in which these interests can make appearances in the classroom, but would it be appropriate to build curriculum centered around these topics because they engage the students? Probably not. As teachers, we select experiences that build upon one another – that have connection with prior learning and would lead to further learning. The Cold Spring teachers did not introduce this project to their students just because they wanted their students to have an experience presenting their work to an authentic audience or wanted to make use of an amazing resource like the YSoA. These were certainly contributing factors, but importantly, Joshua shared that the other primary motivating factor behind this project was that it would be a natural extension of the children’s study of Native Americans, storytelling, and habitats. The project – architecture as storytelling – would draw upon the knowledge they had already constructed, and expand it in new and different ways.

Watch Caitlin from YSoA help CSS students make the connection between this project and their previous studies:

Similarly, each work session with the YSoA “coaches” carefully connected with and built upon the last. Starting with the big picture view of how architecture responds to environmental and cultural variables and thus tells a story, each subsequent session gradually narrowed the scope to eventually consider and respond to the particulars of Cold Spring School.

There was clear continuity of content across the sessions (read about how these sessions unfolded here), but there was also continuity within the structure of the lessons. While content was new from week to week, the students came to expect that they would start their sessions with the YSoA coaches with a mini-lesson followed by an opportunity to practice the ideas or skills introduced through work that mimicked the real work of architects. At the end of each class, they shared out their findings. We know that this predictable structure frees up children’s minds to attend to the new information rather than spending their mental energy wondering about what will be expected of them from lesson to lesson. This was likely another factor in the CSS students’ urgent settling into lessons in later sessions – they knew the format of what was to come and what the expectations were, and they could shift their focus more to what they would gain from the session. Teachers know this and live it on a daily basis. But projects can be such a happy disruption to the regular routines of classroom life that it is easy to forget to build in the time and repeated exposure to routines necessary to help our students find their independence in a different context.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, this project drew upon continuity across disciplines. It emerged from the social studies unit on Native American cultures, expanded on the literacy study around storytelling, and had innumerable connections with each STEAM discipline. Can you spy the literacy, science, technology, engineering, art, math, and social studies connections here in this two-minute clip?

At Cold Spring School, teachers do have the ability to use their class time as they see fit, meaning that what may typically be a literacy block can be used for science or social studies or project work at the teacher’s discretion. This flexibility lends itself to project-based learning as it allows for the disciplines to interact together. It may not be as easy to do so in your setting. You may need to explain that yes, this is the math block and defend the skills and concepts that are involved in, for example, constructing a model of a fort (scale…measurement…geometry… perimeter…area…). And are there specialists you can connect with to develop projects that they can support in their disciplines? Here a student is clearly making connections with lessons from other classes:

Through all these challenges teachers face, I’m guess that the most glaring difference between your classroom and what is going on here in these videos is this amazing resource we have yet to talk about in depth: The Yale School of Architecture students. The next blog post about the Fort Project will focus on the collaboration between CSS and the YSoA coaches. We will consider the benefits and challenges of bringing in outside experts, and formulate some thoughts on how to make collaboration with local resources a positive, meaningful experience for all.

Sequencing Of Sessions

In Session One, CSS students were shown images of Native American structures and asked to “read” the images. YSoA students then unpacked the images together with the CSS students in a whole group, providing them with information about the environment, culture, and landscape reflected in Native American architecture across the country.

Next, CSS students practiced the work of architects in a mini simulation. They were given images of different landscapes with various constraints to work within and asked to draw iterative sketches of designs that reflected these variables. At the end of the session, CSS students shared their designs in the large group.

In the second session, YSoA coaches walked CSS students through the process of site analysis, in which architects evaluate the climatic, geographical, and social contexts of a site. After learning that they would be designing forts for their school, CSS students traveled outside with their YSoA coaches to conduct their own site analyses of the Pear Tree Yard. Again, at the end of the session, children shared out their findings in small groups. Using this information and their imaginations, they also shared their own individual ideas for what kind of fort they would propose.

The third session involved two mini-lessons and work periods. In the first mini-lesson, YSoA coaches showed images that reflected how “program” (how the space is used) and “circulation” (how people move through space in the site), are reflected in modern day architecture. The CSS students then broke out in assigned small groups to collaborate around combining their individual ideas for a fort into one that the whole group could support. With the coaching of the YSoA students, they were encouraged to use all they had learned about environment, landscape, culture, materials, program, and accessibility, in addition to listening respectfully to their peers and ensuring all members of the group were heard. After coming to some agreement about the form and function of their forts and sharing out with the large group, both classes reassembled for a mini-lesson about how different model-making materials affect how architects think and how they make models. This was followed by another break-out session in which CSS students eagerly got started on constructing their fort models.

Model work continued in the school’s Tinkerlab between sessions. When the YSoA coaches returned for the fourth session, model work was essentially complete. In this final work session, there were again two mini-lessons and work periods. The coaches taught CSS students about why and how architects make sections and plans, then created a hands-on experience using green peppers (!) to understand their purposes and differences on a concrete level.

Next, they returned to the large group and practiced applying this knowledge on a more abstract level by participating in the creation of a section and plan of their Tinkerlab. Finally, they returned to their small groups and worked collaboratively to make sections and plans of their forts.

In the weeks that followed, students were given classroom time to work in small groups on their presentations for the critics. Returning to the theme of storytelling, they were encouraged to prepare for these presentations as if they were telling a story intended to draw the listener in. At the final presentations, it was clear that some groups had taken this approach to heart. To varying degrees, there was dramatic flair, wonderfully descriptive language, and engagement of the audience. All groups were thoroughly prepared, informed, and proud.


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