In my classroom, my elementary students are artists. Just like scientists, artists solve problems, formulate ideas, identify solutions, and experiment. Last year, I invited my students to design and
create robots that would be useful to society. I chose
robots for this project specifically because of their
open-ended nature: Robots do not have definitive
shapes or characteristics, and there is not a wrong
way to create a robot. I opted to have students create
2–D designs, rather than 3–D replicas, so that students could dream big and invent the impossible.
Students started by identifying problems they
encountered in their lives—such as daily chores
like cooking or homework—as well as problems in
the larger world around them, including bullying,
homelessness, and hunger. After pinpointing these
difficulties, students targeted possible solutions
by dreaming up robots that were designed to meet
these specific needs. For instance, one kindergartner
the building of their background knowledge with
a two-day visit to the archeological site at Historic
Jamestowne and the Powhatan village at Jamestown
Settlement near Williamsburg, Virginia.
At the end of the problem-solving unit, students
created a final product that integrated writing and
the arts. In past years, students have conveyed historical perspectives through expressionist paintings,
dramatic performances, and first-person narratives.
With last year’s project, students—inspired by the
Broadway hip-hop musical, Hamilton—worked with
our drama teacher to create two-person raps that
provided the perspective of two actors in the story
of Jamestown. Whether a historic figure or a fictionalized character representing a group, the students
embodied the perspectives lost to history. They then
performed their raps at one of our showcases of
learning for families and other community members.
Tackling the problem of perspective through an
in-depth study of the history of Jamestown has pro-
vided 4th graders at Two Rivers with opportunities
to expand their critical thinking and problem-
solving skills as they make history come alive. EL
Jeff Heyck-Williams (jheyckwilliams@tworiverspcs.
org) is director of curriculum and instruction at Two
Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.
Follow him on Twitter @jheyckwilliams and the school
The Art of Robot Design
Elicia Timpson Gray
They moved to define pathways to
a solution, deciding that they would
ultimately represent the lost voices
of Jamestown in a musical format.
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