Someone asked me recently about which classroom projects both foster and challenge community. Challenging the notion of community is just as important as supporting it for kids to learn why it matters. As I thought about it, I realized that really any activity that requires teamwork among kids will typically test the strength of the community.
Last year we were studying the U.S. postal system and the mail process. The class worked on many independent activities that involved writing postcards and mailing letters to parents or friends, learning how to address envelopes, and understanding the steps a letter goes through to get from point A to point B.
One of our group projects was an effort to learn how fragile items were packaged and safely delivered in the mail. We decided to pack and mail a raw egg to ourselves.
The class talked in a full group about the texture and properties of the raw egg and hypothesized about which materials would protect it as it traveled through the postal system.
The class was then divided into four small groups. Each group was given a raw egg, packing peanuts, bubble wrap, paper, tape, boxes, and various other materials for packaging, and sent on their way to pack their egg.
The group I was supervising spent the majority of their time arguing over who was in charge of packing the egg. I didn’t intervene but it was painfully obvious that this was not going well. My group of four kids were fighting over who would hold the egg, over how to place the egg in the box, and over what materials to use and how to arrange them. They were even pulling things out of one another’s hands – each one wanting to take the lead. Each unable to work together or negotiate or problem solve.
I looked over my shoulder at the other two groups. They were talking through a plan; coming up with a strategy and taking turns with various materials. When there were differences in opinions, they worked through it and came up with resolutions.
My group ended up lobbing the poor egg into the box and all hands shoving in the extra materials. While fighting over the tape, the kids almost taped their own hands to the outside of the box. When they were done, they passed over a smooshed box with crumpled tape wrapping all around it. They looked at me defeated, as if they knew exactly the fate of this egg.
We gathered again as a group to discuss and reflect on the project – a very powerful way to complete these small group activities. It helps for kids to hear others’ experiences with the same activity and process what they just learned.
I asked them all how it went.
“Great,” said one kid from the other group. “Our egg is not gonna break!” His fellow team members echoed his satisfaction.
The second group enthusiastically said they were the best packagers. “We figured out how to float the egg inside,” this team said.
My group was quiet. Then one kid from my group said: “We were fighting. ‘X’ wouldn’t let me have the egg!” He was indignant.
‘X’ argued back. “You wouldn’t let me!”
Another from this group, exasperated, said: “Our egg is not good.”
I took the three boxes to the Post Office and mailed them back to the school. A few days later, they arrived. We gathered again to open them. I left my group’s package for last.
The first two, we opened with great fanfare. We pulled off the tape and unwrapped the brown paper and took out the bubble wrap and packing peanuts and all the rest. The eggs were both intact! The packing teams cheered.
There was a foul smell coming from the third box. My team looked apprehensive as I pulled off the packaging. As the wrapping unfolded, I thought I was going to vomit. The child sitting next to me actually gagged. The egg had broken and smeared all over the box. The kids recoiled at the smell.
“Well,” I said, “looks like this one did not make it.”
The group that packed this now broken, rotten egg sat silently. I asked what they thought had happened.
“We did a bad job,” one of them said.
I asked what he meant.
“We didn’t pack it right. We were fighting too much.”
It is difficult for such young children to think in abstract terms (ie: if we worked together, the egg packaging would have been more successful), but the concrete examples of the egg and its demise did make them ponder.
Working together is one important aspect of community; a shared goal and shared experience in working toward it. Creating these opportunities for successful and failed projects can be powerful tools in creating a stronger classroom community.