School adds local twist to innovative learning


The multipurpose room at Laurel Elementary School in Atherton was abuzz with excitement on a recent Monday morning, as 43 third-graders stood behind desks, presenting their ideas for what Stanford developers should do with the public space that will become Middle Plaza, located at 500 El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

Parents and real-life Stanford developers wandered the project displays, each featuring a to-scale design poster paired with a written justification for each of the features these students wanted. Highlights of these budding designers' proposals included:

A laser tag facility.

■ Segway rentals.

■ A jumbo screen.

■ A parking lot for ice cream vendors and food trucks.

■ A dog park.

■ A fireplace.

■ and bathrooms.

The bathrooms came with perhaps the wisest written rationale of all: "You don't want people to wet there (sic) pants, do you?"

The students in the two third-grade classes, taught by Steffany Cressey with co-teachers Priscilla Seely and Andi Denhe, had spent the past six weeks learning about Menlo Park's history and development process and preparing their designs.

In preparing to teach about the city's history, the teachers did research, including compiling old photographs from the online archives of the Menlo Park Historical Association.

They taught students about historical figures such as Leland Stanford and Charles Burgess, and discussed changes in transportation, schools and stores.

The teachers brought in three longtime Menlo Park residents to share their stories with the classes. Sydnee Journel, Stanford's assistant director of community relations, performed a skit for the students to explain how land gets developed.

Next, the two classes went on a field trip to explore three local parks. Students took pictures using shared iPads to document the parks' various landscapes, features and amenities.

According to Ms. Cressey, students spent at least an hour each day on the project.

One parent in attendance, Peter Brown, said that although there were clearly some far-fetched suggestions, as a whole, "these kids collectively have got it nailed for the community."

Mr. Journel said the children's plans offer glimpses of not just "what's feasible, but what's outside the box."

The posters were on display during two community open houses hosted by Stanford to hear feedback on its Middle Plaza designs.

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that this community-integrated project is only one of three concurrent pilot studies on innovative student learning being conducted among third-graders at the school.

According to Theresa Fox, Laurel Elementary School's educational technology innovation coach, the six third-grade classes at the school have been divided into three groups, each tasked with implementing a different learning paradigm to teach Menlo Park history: project-based learning, design thinking, and the international baccalaureate approach. Each pilot study will then be evaluated by student, teacher, and parent surveys.

The Middle Plaza design project is the project-based learning pilot.

The design thinking pilot, which will prioritize teaching students empathy, has involved teachers role-playing various figures in Menlo Park's history, including Jane Stanford, a Chinese railroad worker and an Italian immigrant. The third-graders' assignment in the design thinking pilot, Ms. Fox said, is to "figure out a community where all three can interact."

Finally, the third-graders in the international baccalaureate pilot will be taught through a more "global" and "service-oriented" lens, Ms. Fox said. These third-graders will unearth and study an imaginary time capsule filled with artifacts from Menlo Park citizens from 1880. Then, they will decide what to put in their own time capsule, which will follow them to their new school site, Upper Laurel, when they become that school's first fourth-graders. The new site, which will host third- through fifth-graders, is located at 275 Elliott Drive in the Willows and is set to open in the fall of 2016.

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