Forsyth Country Day School Getting Creative: How Hands-on Projects Engage Student Learning

by PRISCILLA ST. JOHN

Problem-solving. Critical thinking. Public speaking. Teamwork. When students and teachers tap into their creativity and delve into experiential learning, they not only learn the subjects they study, but develop key skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

At Forsyth Country Day School, projects are woven into the educational experience from preschool through twelfth grade to enrich the learning experience at all levels.

Lower School

Kindergarten students recently learned about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for a Balloons Over Broadway project. They researched the parade and its famous balloons, studying how they are made. Then, they set out to create their own balloons. The design process started with drawing 2D models of the balloons they wanted to create. After that, they had to figure out how to turn their 2D design into a 3D balloon that would survive the fun class parade that served as a grand finale to the project.

“I think it was really engaging,” says Kindergarten Teacher Allison Blamer. “They were all invested, and it really made them feel like they had a part in their learning because they had choice and voice,” she said. It was especially effective at helping kindergarteners learn critical thinking skills, because not every balloon design worked out the first time. “They learn problem-solving skills through what we call ‘productive struggle,’” she says. “You can see when a child finally ‘gets it.’ It’s so rewarding for them!”

In second grade, students learned about themselves and their classmates through the Culture Showcase. “We talk a lot about belonging at FCDS, and it is important for students to understand that although we have different experiences, backgrounds and beliefs, we all belong and are a part of our amazing FCDS community,” says Second Grade Teacher Abby Hoffman.

Second Grader Harrison liked the teamwork aspect of the project. “One of my favorite parts about the culture project was getting paired to work with a friend,” he says. “In the library, we worked on the computer with our friend to look up pictures of our favorite things. Once we did that, we created a book about ourselves.”

The book called “The Best Part of Me” was packed in a Culture Carry-on Suitcase that contained representations of everything that makes each student uniquely themselves – from beloved family recipes to favorite animals and traditions. “We made a suitcase out of a box” says Johnny. “We kept a lot of things in our suitcase. Three of the things were a book that we made, a paper we made in art with clothing that we wear and ‘The Best Part of Me’ writing.”

At the conclusion of the projects, families were invited to join the students and “travel” the room. This was Mia’s favorite part. “Everyone had a paper that was like a passport. We pretended we were traveling, and when we gave our presentations, grown-ups gave us stamps. Families came to our table to learn about our cultures,” she says.

The project was a fun experience that taught students and parents in the process. “The best part of experiential learning is seeing the students take ownership of their learning,” Ms. Hoffman said. “Students got to be creative and are proud to share their projects with classmates and families!”

Middle School 

In middle school, projects get more complex as students mature. In William Fusek’s sixth grade geography class, recent hands-on learning opportunities have included creating a unique kingdom and making a PowerPoint travel brochure about a South American country that would entice tourists to visit.

These projects offer something for all different kinds of learners. “About 75 percent of the students liked the kingdom project more because it was more hands-on,” Mr. Fusek says. “The other 25 percent liked the PowerPoint project because it involved computers.”

In addition, some students prefer learning via projects because they are less stressful than tests. “With a test, you could just memorize the material but not necessarily master it,” he says. “In a project, students are able to demonstrate mastery in a hands-on, creative way.”

In Jasmine Vadgama’s seventh grade sustainable cities class (which was inspired by the Future City STEM competition), students spent several months researching sustainable cities and ways to make urban centers more eco-friendly, then designing and creating their own futuristic cities based on what they’ve learned. They write research papers, perform skits and then showcase a display of their metropolis on a trifold or as a model.

One particularly passionate group – Ariana, Livie and Kaylie – created a 3D model with working lights of their island city of New Kora. The city used water from a desalination plant, centralized living, vertical greenhouses and a monorail, to name only a few features. “We wanted it to feel futuristic – like something no one had ever created before,” Ariana says.

“It’s phenomenal what these girls created in the amount of time they had,” Ms. Vadgama says. This kind of hands-on learning clearly resonated with the students.

“Projects are helpful,” Livie says. “You get to be creative with it.”

Kaylie agreed. “I think that projects help you learn things better than just reading about it. You get to apply your knowledge.”

Upper School 

FCDS’s Upper School is known for rigorous academics and the quality of the student experience. Hands-on learning enhances this, helping students hone the skills they need as they prepare for college and what’s ahead.

In Grace Mason’s Ancient and Medieval History class, students studying ancient Greece held a mock dinner party to better understand ancient philosophy. After reading about the philosophers’ lives and schools of thought, students broke into groups to write scripts for a dinner party. Each student played a different ancient philosopher and acted out how their character would have responded to modern problems such as global warming, space exploration or food insecurity.

“Students then acted out their dinner parties in class – they were allowed to dress up, bring in food and really get into character to make it fun,” Mrs. Mason says. “In the end, students got to learn about each of their ideas in more depth than just recalling random names associated with ideas as they would have on a test.”

Dr. Ashton Trawinski applied the same experiential bent to a recent cellular biology unit. She had students choose one of the three major areas of the cells, then create a webpage or blog that would teach other students about the topic and give fun, engaging assignments to help other learners. “First, they had to spend time understanding the material themselves, then consider, ‘How do I break this down so someone else can understand what I know?’ They engaged with the content more this way than simply asking them to memorize a list of steps or definitions.”

Forsyth Country Day School is well suited to this kind of hands-on learning, Dr. Trawinski says.

“We have the flexibility to step away from the checklist of ‘we must cover all this content’ and really focus on which content can help them build skills focused on scientific reasoning and critical thinking,” she says. “These projects all take time, both in and out of the classroom, more time than a typical closed-book test would take. This requires focusing on which content really supports those scientific and academic skills that we value.”

If your child would thrive in a creative and engaging learning environment, we encourage you to visit our campus and see our students in action. Schedule your tour by visiting FCDS.org/admission or by calling 336.946.1633.

Watch this video to see cool things our students are learning…https://vimeo.com/773938315

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