Catlin Gabel: what education can be
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What child hasn’t peppered his or her parents with the word, “WHY?” It starts with one innocent question, which leads to another—and another, and another, until Mom or Dad says, “Because I said so.”
At Portland’s Oregon Episcopal School (OES), that same inquisitiveness is answered with a challenge to kids to make discoveries for themselves, often with impressive results. Last spring, this kind of questioning culminated in the creation of a beautiful, sturdy playhouse made by kindergartners’ own hands.
The project began innocently enough. While on a walking trail, Kirstin McAuley’s kindergarten class spotted cracks in the earth and asked questions about them. So they were told to dig in and see.
In “The Everybody House,” a book OES self-published about their project, Peter, a member of the kindergarten class, was quoted as saying, “We were wondering how these cracks got there and what they really are. There was some really ready-to-plant soil. It looked like a worm had been eating his food in there.”
Curious about mud and what they could do with it, the students created small mud bowls and mud houses for slugs and worms — each time learning a little more about how to make them sturdier using other materials such as pinecones and sticks.
“We decided it would be interesting to create something more permanent, and build something that would be meaningful to other children,” Kirstin said. “We talked about building a store, a house or a wall. Everyone had ideas, so the consensus was to create an ‘Everybody House’ on the playground.”
First, the class conducted research to find out what would be a suitable structure that the students could build together. They found their answer on a field trip to Tryon Life Community Farm, an expansive sustainability educational facility where the students encountered buildings made from all-natural materials: cob houses, which are enduring structures composed of clay, straw and sand.
“I knew nothing about cob structures,” Kirstin laughed. “So we started with more questions and answered them through experiments. We used grass, straw, mud and other materials. One parent brought the components of a mud brick maker. We also got help from natural builders from the Planet Repair Institute.”
“You can use mud to build houses, because it can hold the walls together,” kindergartner Theo said in the OES book. “You can’t have it super wet, otherwise it’s really sloppy and can fall out. You can tell if it’s just right if it stays.”
By May, the class had decided on a design and was ready to build. After some help building the foundation — adult work to keep the structure off the ground —
the kindergartners got their feet and boots muddy mixing the cob ingredients together into a mushy goo. Think back to the scene in the movie “The Ten Commandments,” where the Hebrews in ancient Egypt mixed mud and straw with their feet.
“Cob is fantastic material for kids,” Kirstin said. “It’s so hands-on and physical, and they get to make something that lasts and they can play in.”
What about Oregon’s famous rain? Won’t the parents be picking up mud-encrusted kids at the end of the day? Apparently not. A roof keeps it dry and it will withstand the rain. And the kids won’t get muddy playing in it because it’s hard, like adobe.
The kids also brought ceramic and glass pieces to decorate the window openings, and adorned the abode with knobs and hinges — just like a real home. By June, the school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Everybody House and its builders enjoyed an amazing sense of accomplishment.
The idea that an entire project could result from an inquiry about cracks in a wooded trail is pretty unique, says Sarah Ross-Bailly, OES’s lower school admissions associate.
“At OES, from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade, we believe in an inquiry-based education,” Sarah said. “The Everybody House is a great example to highlight because the project wove together writing, researching, science, drawing, building, asking questions, all of learning’s disciplines.”
Another inquiry is taking place in the fourth grade. This year, an owl flew onto the landing during class and the students got up to observe it. From that moment, the class began studying how to build an owl-nesting box. They worked on designs and used math to determine the correct shape and size.
“We are hoping that the owl will return and nest in it,” Sarah said. “As a college preparatory program with a dynamic curriculum, these are the kinds of projects from inquiry that create a greater opportunity for in-depth learning.”
In a pre-kindergarten class, the kids found hatching spiders in the wetlands and tried to replicate the experience in their art studio — by creating a giant web outside of their classroom made from sticks and thread.
“Projects such as the Everybody House are such beautiful examples of our faculty’s innovation and passion,” Sarah explained. “You need faculty willing to inspire those questions and incorporate them into amazing learning opportunities.”
Deston Nokes is a travel and business writer living in Portland. destonnokes.com