The summer after I graduated from college, I spent ten days in Romania building a house with Habitat for Humanity. In the heat of early August, twelve strangers who quickly became dear friends, united around a common purpose and passion: to help those who could not provide for themselves build a house and turn it into a home. To say that I was unprepared for what this trip would bring would be an understatement. Yes, I had all of the right gear, I was in good physical condition, and was an avid traveler. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the profound way my future as a teacher would be shaped on a hot, dusty construction site in rural Romania.
After spending almost two weeks building a house from the ground up, I learned how to use tools I had never before touched. New skills are borne through trial and error, and my battle to master an electric drill was proof of that. I learned the importance of taking my time to make sure that my measurements and cuts were exactly right so our framework would line up. The importance of quality work is ever-present in building something that requires precision and accuracy, like the frame of a house. I learned how to relinquish control to other members of my team because, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t lift a bag of cement mix by myself. Collaboration was essential if we wanted to achieve our goal of building a house in ten days.
As with all service projects, the “thing” that is made/built/created, is rarely the “thing” that really matters. Yes, the house that we built was the focus of all our attention and resources, but it was the act of building the house that superseded the importance of the structure. The house was a manifestation of the “we’re all in this together” mentality we had to adopt in order to accomplish the task. I built a house, but more importantly I built a family out of a group of strangers, and a better understanding of myself as an individual, and in that sense, the house built me. When I became a teacher at a project based learning school, I knew that I wanted to give my students the same type of experience, in the hopes that they would learn the same lessons I did.
Fast forward a couple years, and the floor of my 4th grade classroom bears an uncanny resemblance to a Habitat construction site. Plywood cut in various shapes is laid out, and several students are measuring the sides to make sure they are going to fit together. Two-by-fours are anchored to tables and groups of students are drilling galvanized deck screws into carefully marked holes. They had spent days prior practicing with the electric drill, working to master this new skill in the same way I had: trying, failing, and trying again.
Outside in the school parking lot, tarps are set up for the priming and painting that will happen over the next couple days before our five dog houses are complete and ready to be donated to the San Diego Humane Society.
Typically this type of chaos would make my stomach turn, but in taking a closer look, it was clearly not chaos at all. Students were collaborating with one another and having conversations about the task at hand. They were applying direct knowledge of the measurement lesson I had taught earlier that morning as they discussed how to line up a ruler and measure their plywood to the nearest 1/16 inch. Their desire for precision stemmed from wanting to produce quality work. Every single one of my twenty-six students was engaged in what they were doing—each one had a role and was executing it beautifully with little guidance on my part.
This was certainly not the image that came to mind when I had the idea of building dog houses in my classroom. Many people (myself included) doubted that 4th graders, especially those brand new to project based learning, could complete this type of work. In fact, the list of reasons why this project was worthwhile paled in comparison to all the reasons it sounded crazy:
Ultimately, in reflecting on my own experience with Habitat, I knew that the potential reward of taking on a project like this was greater than the risk. What I didn’t know was that the unforeseen rewards would come to exceed even my highest expectations.
This type of project could be driven only by a purpose in which the students were invested. Those of us on the Habitat trip were united by the common purpose of building a house for a Romanian family, and my students needed an equally meaningful purpose. We visited a local Habitat construction site in El Cajon for inspiration, but the kids were too young to actually work on site, and so the search for purpose continued.
I had a classroom full of animal-lovers and, as it happened, one of Habitat’s “youth projects” featured on their website was a dog house. Suddenly the project began to take form. We would build five dog houses and donate them to the San Diego Humane Society. We met with the Humane Society staff, as well as the Humane Society Law Enforcement Team to learn about where our dog houses would be going and the impact they would have on families unable to provide housing for their pets. So, with passion and purpose, we set out into the unknown.
Building a house of any size is not something that one person can do on his or her own. Reliance on others is vital, something my students learned early on as they tried to lift heavy sheets of plywood that both outsized and outweighed many of them, just as I had learned lifting bags of cement. Success could come only from collaboration.
This type of project also required a wide range of skills that no single 4th grader could possibly possess. This added another level to their need to work together. The students were able to identify and value the diverse expertise in one another, as each one began to gravitate towards a particular skill. At no point were roles in groups assigned. The phrase, “Go ask _________ to help you! He/she is really good at ________” was commonly heard during work time as they began to recognize the individual contributions each person could make to the project as a whole. The “we’re all in this together” mantra of Habitat was ringing loud and clear through my classroom.
Benjamin struggled academically and had a very hard time engaging in tasks that were not of interest to him. He did not see himself as a leader in the classroom, and students did not seek him out for help.
Benjamin loved to work with his hands. He and his dad would spend weekends in their garage building bike ramps or working on other little projects, and he was very familiar with many of the tools we were using on the dog houses. Right away he appointed himself “master sander” and taught several students tips and tricks for sanding down the edges of the plywood. Benjamin gave guidance without taking over, showing others the proper way to hold a drill and then letting them try for themselves. He was a patient leader and teacher, a quality I had never before seen in him in the classroom setting.
Tyler was academically successful and gravitated towards the subjects in school where he was particularly strong. He paid little attention to where he had room for growth, often rushing through challenging work so that he could move on to a more preferred activity.
The painting portion of this project took place during a particularly hot week in March, and the dog houses were set up outside with no shade. Many of the students got tired of painting after 30 minutes or so, but Tyler worked diligently for over an hour. He carefully painted around thin strips of tape, being mindful of where he was putting his brush so as to do a quality job. He painted two coats on his group’s dog house and stayed to finish the work even when the rest of his group grew tired and gave up.
After successfully completing five dog houses a week ahead of schedule, I no longer have any reservations about tackling big-build projects with elementary school kids. Aside from all of the beautiful transformations that this project brought about in my class, we also had a great time doing it! Sometimes it was hard to distinguish the divide between learning and fun.
In order to prepare for this project, I had written out step-by-step plans for the entire build after first completing one dog house myself. I am very meticulous by nature and need to know exactly what I am expected to do and when, in order to feel confident in my work. I assumed that a project of this magnitude would require me to be over-planned, but I was wrong. We didn’t use the plans I wrote or the diagrams I drew. We didn’t once look at the calendar I put together with goals that needed to be met each week to stay on track. I kept this information in the back of my mind, but it did not dictate the flow of the project as I thought it would.
I have learned that plans should act more as guidelines than blueprints—provisional and changeable based on the flow of the work. Sometimes not following a plan is the best plan. Sometimes it’s okay to let the project guide itself—to go where there is no path, and make one.