Unplanned guest occupies kindergarten: Lady Liberty Part 1

(Editor’s note: This is the first blog of a two-part series. The second blog, Reflections on learning from an unplanned guest can be found here.)

Kindergarten teacher Leonor Silva had no idea what was going to happen. She didn’t have a lesson plan. Intentionally. But she had a professional goal: to develop the blocks area into a space that helped students to dig deeper. To foster curiosity. She wondered if students asked more questions, could they find a project that was more interesting to them?

In a Friday class meeting, Ms. Silva reminded her students of past projects in blocks:  a re-creation of the Hudson Hike field trip. Temples. The nativity scene.

“Then I asked a question,” she says, “What would you like to build in blocks? And 17 children had 17 ideas. So I gave them homework: to go home and think about it over the weekend.”

There were plenty of ideas on Monday morning! A nail polish salon. Castle. Airport. Dragon. Liberty Science Center. Museum. Football stadium. Empire State Building. So Ms. Silva provided books on the Empire State Building, castles, airports, and a book on famous buildings.

Refining the idea

Throughout the week, students looked through the books and worked on the ideas in blocks. At the end of the week, Ms. Silva said, “Now that you’re more experienced with these three things, if we could all work on one thing together, what would it be?’”

One by one, students shared their preferences. When they came to Joanna, she said, “I want to build the Statue of Liberty.”

It wasn’t on the original list, but the statue had been in one of the books about buildings. Suddenly there seemed to be energy around this idea. Ms. Silva went around the circle again. Several students changed their minds. The final vote was 10-7. Statue of Liberty to castles.

Ms. Silva returned to the library and checked out books about the Statue of Liberty to read aloud. Students copied pictures of the statue and made line drawings. The class wrote two lists: what they knew about the statue and what they wanted to know.

drawing

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Building the Base

The block building phase started with a lot of frustration. The children tried to build the star points at the base of the pedestal, but it was too hard. With guidance from Ms. Silva, students agreed to build the base without the star. Open books surrounded the work area for reference. Questions arose:  Where do the stairs go? Can we make the base a little more square?

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Looking at the photos, students noticed three windows and a door.  “It was hard to reproduce on one side,” says Ms. Silva. “In some places, the structure was wobbly. So we discussed how to connect parts in a way that kept the blocks from falling: by using junctions. The children were highly motivated. There was always something going on in the blocks area!”

Now students wanted to know more about the statue. How did it come to be? What was the process? What materials did they use? Why did it turn green when it was originally brown? How thick was the statue? As Ms. Silva read to them, students started to know the answers to their questions. They knew the names of the people involved. That structural engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel designed the internal structure using a flexible skeletal system. That the copper “skin” was two pennies thick. And it turned green as the copper was exposed to the air.

They learned that the statue is embued with a sense of freedom. The broken chains at Lady Liberty’s feet stand for freedom. The seven spikes on her crown symbolize the seven continents and seven seas.  They read Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The Colossus,” that remains inscribed on the pedestal.  They thought about “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name/Mother of Exiles.” 

Tackling the star base: Fort Wood

Soon the square base was completed. It was time to return to the star-shaped walls at the bottom of the structure. By now the students had learned the name of star-shaped structure: Fort Wood. And that it’s part of an actual military fort. It has 11 points, a particular formation meant to protect the fort more effectively and accommodate more weapons.

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As they built, there were still challenges. This time, they persevered. Through trial and error, students made progress. Figured out what to do when they ran out of triangle blocks. Discovered how to place blocks to make the star shape.

Visiting the statue

A project that began in the blocks area was now something more. The children wanted to visit the statue. Ms. Silva set up the field trip. Undeterred by the cold weather, several parents volunteered to chaperone.

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“The museum had a lot of kinesthetic exhibits,” says Ms. Silva. “Children touched a scale-sized replica of the face. Touched and saw where copper connects. Held the back of the statue to see that it really is two pennies thick! Sat on a replica of Liberty’s toes. Touched the head. But the outside, seeing the statue, was breathtaking. It’s so big and we’re so small!”

“During the trip, their knowledge was visible. When they were inside the museum, they connected what they were learning to what they knew. Students surprised the chaperones with their depth of knowledge.”

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Returning to the classroom: time to construct Lady Liberty

Back at school, the Kindergarten Earth class were eager to build Lady Liberty. First, they had to think about scale. How big is the statue compared to the base?  “We measured the statue and the pedestal in one of our books. They were roughly the same size. Then we used a yardstick to measure our base: 33 inches. That meant that the statue needed to be about 33 inches. Second, they had to decide on material. There were lots of ideas. Someone suggested clay. But some students worried that it would be too heavy. Crumpled paper didn’t seem quite right. Fiona mentioned paper mache. And at that point, we realized that we needed to call in an expert: art teacher Nathan Johnson.”

Not only was Mr. Johnson willing to help, but he incorporated the project into art class and Shared Space. He set up paper mache in the sensory table and taught the technique. He helped students build a chicken wire scaffold. Then he taught them how to cover it with paper mache.

building the statue

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“What started as my professional goal became a team project,” says Ms. Silva. “Mr. Cuervo and Ms. Fain supervised during Shared Space. The Kindergarten Water Class joined in. And there was more creative problem-solving. How can we make the head? Cover a balloon! Luca wanted pipe cleaners to make the torch. Joanna wanted wood to make the tablet. All the while we continued to read books about the statue and learn more.”

in shared space

looking at the project

nathan with students

The paper mache Statue of Liberty spent time in the classroom installed on the pedestal in the blocks area. Each student had previously made a self-portrait doll. They took their dolls to the statue that they had so carefully made. Re-created their field trip.

The end result of this open-ended lesson?  Not only did the students construct a difficult block structure and a stunning statue, but they also learned to research and ask questions. Think creatively. Persevere. They ended the project with a deep sense of ownership and a broad knowledge base. And they are very, very proud of their work.

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Final reflections: What did Ms. Silva learn?

“There was so much joy in not having a plan. Following the lead of the students. When I asked the question, ‘What do you want to build in blocks,’ I had no idea where it would lead. This project taught me to pay more attention. To observe and listen in a different way. Because I didn’t have a plan, the students were free to suggest. To think about materials, for example. To ask to visit the statue.

“In the beginning, the children didn’t have many questions because they didn’t know much about the Statue of Liberty. As they learned more, they asked more questions. We tried to answer their questions. The more we read, the more we wanted to know.

“Throughout the process, I learned more about the ways in which the individuals in my class learn. I noticed that some children would have benefitted from visiting the statue first and then delving into the project. Others did better with learning information first and then visiting the statue.”

What would Ms. Silva do differently next time?

“If I were to do it over again, I would provide even more time for questions and break up the class into smaller groups for discussions.

“One of the challenges of not having an overall plan at the beginning is that it became a little long at the end. If I had planned it, we could have worked on the pedestal and the statue at the same time. But, of course, if I had planned it, it wouldn’t have been the same project!”

(Editor’s note: This is the first blog of a two-part series. The second blog, Reflections on learning from an unplanned guest can be found here.)

Abby Liu

ABBY LIU, Associate Director of Communications

Ms. Liu is a writer for the development office and manages the school’s digital and print media. She’s the parent of a current MSS student and a recent alum.