Learning to Build a Community

Friday is payday for 3rd graders in Melanie Benefiel’s class. The hard work of planning and building “Wildwood Town” will be rewarded as the students collect wages they earned over the past three weeks as part of a Wildwood social studies curriculum long-term project in community design and construction.

From the Wildwood Town Council

For a few weeks in October, Melanie’s classroom morphs into Wildwood Town — a polyglot collection of communities designed and built in the room by her students. The project is launched early in the month. Students engage in a chalk talk (a written brainstorming exercise) in response to the question “What is a community?”  Then, each student receives an official-looking letter from the Wildwood City Council explaining the town’s growing challenges.

The letter from “council members” — head teacher Melanie, and associate teachers Jody Poulos and Kendra Elstad — explains that Wildwood Town has acquired new land and needs a development plan. There’s a need to build urban and suburban communities where people will live, a rural area to provide food and natural resources, and a cyber community, linking these together.  This entire city, the students learn, will be designed and built by them.

Next, students make a career choice. They can select one of three jobs within each community. City designers and mapmakers will be responsible for the overall community plan. Construction workers will need to create the structures and build the roads. And landscape architects will need to collaborate and come up with a design for all green spaces, select plants, and plan for integrating bodies of water.

Every grade level at Wildwood emphasizes authentic learning experiences as part of the core program. For these students, applying and interviewing for the jobs that will make Wildwood Town a reality are part of the work.

3rd grader Paige P. interviews with Jody Poulos

Each student fills out an application form to get the process started. On the day I visit their class, associate teacher, Jody Poulos, calls students one-by-one to the back of the room for interviews where she sits at a desk—a pile of job applications before her, along with an empty seat for students.

Paige P. is the first applicant. “Your application says that you’re applying for the job of construction worker,” Jody begins.  “What experience would you bring to this job?”  Paige thoughtfully responds, “I was really good at block building when I was in the Pods. I built boats and houses. I also like to build things at home,” she says.  Jody ponders Paige’s application and responds, “All of this really indicates that you can look at a plan and create what you see.  That’s what we need our construction workers to do on this project. Can you do that?” Without hesitation and with a smile, Paige says, “Oh, definitely.” She’ll find out whether she’s gotten the job by the end of the day.

An Official Employee Badge

Once hired, each student receives an official employee badge, which they need to wear during all work periods.

Beckett P. and Ian N. work on their community

Do the students take their responsibilities seriously? “On the day jobs are announced and each child is presented with their employee badge, all of the kids stand and applaud, says Melanie. “They do it for everyone. They are so excited and proud that they’ve ‘landed’ their first job.”

Over the course of the next two weeks, students collaborate, create, and construct their assigned communities, and then carefully arrange them into one big Wildwood Town right in the center of the room.

Wildwood Town, Completed

It’s a multi-dimensional social studies simulation with valuable takeaways.  Students learn about communities while experiencing collaboration and integrating the Life Skills, like responsibility and initiative. Melanie says these skills grow naturally, and describes a conversation she had with the kids after a work session.  “I asked them,” Melanie says, “‘What do you do when a co-worker is not working as hard as everyone else?’ One of the girls in her class suggested, ‘Don’t gossip about them….just go up to them and tell them to get to work…you have to.’ Another student,  Beckett P., then raises his hand and exclaims apologetically, ‘I’m sorry! I think I was slacking off today…will I still get paid?’”

Probably. And also like the real world, as soon as the paychecks come tomorrow, students will exchange part of their wages for a class party, to celebrate a job well done, as well as many lessons learned.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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