Grade 4 Students Build Skills and Explore Complex Questions Through Eco Center Residency

In a week of active exploration and collaboration, our Grade 4 students and the Grade 4 teaching team came together for a hands-on, interdisciplinary residency at the Eco Center at 412. Co-led by Director of the Eco Center, Dr. Brandon Kraft, and Director of Lower School Curriculum, Lila Mortimer, this was the first weeklong Lower School residency held at the Brizendine Center for Ecology. The program, which reimagined the academic week around the study of topography, soil and the development of early communities, wove the Grade 4 curriculum and school life into the experience from beginning to end. The residency also included ample time for students to make use of 412’s state-of-the-art squash courts for daily squash lessons with Director of Squash Ben Oliner and his team.

In designing the residency, Kraft, Mortimer and the Lower School homeroom teaching team built the program upon the existing social studies curriculum and incorporated math, science and literacy throughout. For example, as students gained scientific knowledge of soil, they simultaneously worked together to explore the mathematical concepts of weight and volume, comparing different units of measurement. 

Students also worked with a 3-dimensional model of Morocco’s Draa Valley to make sense of the creation and maintenance of a gravity fed aqueduct, which allowed for the development of a complex farming society. Presented with a hypothetical dilemma in which a storm flooded part of the area and broke the aqueduct, students formed a water council to debate who should fix it. They employed social studies, literacy and social learning skills to engage in this experience.

“There were many great learning opportunities for deep study,” said Head of Lower School Elizabeth Causey as she described the moments of learning she witnessed throughout the week. The residency also had a broad, practical application for social studies thinking, shared Causey: “How does where you live impact how you live? And how do communities create structures for societies to thrive?” 
 
“Students were exposed to historical problems that speak to contemporary challenges,” echoed Kraft, noting that the program challenged students to consider how we feed and get water to people who need it, as well as the link between water and soil and how that impacts crop yields. 

Answering such complex questions required students to make use of the analytical and communications skills they have been honing throughout their time in the Lower School. “It was so clear how much learning and skill-building they had done in the earlier years to bring them to this point, where they were able to listen deeply to each other and think collectively to solve problems,” said Causey, adding that the program’s weeklong, immersive format gave children “really good, long periods of time for exploration and to make meaning about something larger.” 
 
Students will also create multimedia presentations about their experience, shared Mortimer, drawing from written reflections they did during the residency as well as photos taken by student photographers to capture important moments of learning throughout the week. “We wanted to make sure the program was not a standalone experience but something that continues over into their classrooms at 93rd Street,” Mortimer explained.
 
Students will continue to use the lessons they took from the residency. “The ecosystems, soils and crops we studied were based on countries that tie into the immigration study Grade 4 will be doing later in the year,” Kraft explained. 
 
“This gives students context and understanding as they think about immigration, what drives people to move, and why they move where they move,” added Mortimer. 

The 412 campus itself played an important role in the program. “Each of the spaces, from the cafe to the multi-purpose room, came alive, and students were finding their own nooks to make 412 their own,” Kraft said. “It truly was a residency. We made the space our home.”

So, what did it take to create such an immersive and joyful week of learning? The answer, Causey said, was teamwork. “A celebration of learning was palpable in the way the kids were working together, and also in the collaborative work of the teachers,” Along with the Grade 4 homeroom teachers, the special discipline teachers from music, STEAM, art, physical education and Spanish joined to support the learning at 412. 

“This program was an incredible lift-off to having this space,” Causey added. “I think we’re just beginning to see what possibilities 412 can bring.”
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