On Whimsy

I do not know a precise dictionary definition of the word whimsy, but I hope that after reading this blog post you’ll know what it means at HGS. We just concluded bonding week, our first week of school, and this year it was especially heavy on the whimsy. The very first day of school we introduced ourselves and noted things around the physical plant. But we also spent a big chunk of time on some limited resource challenges. Students were divided into small groups and asked to build the tallest possible structure out of dry spaghetti that would hold up a marshmallow. Here’s the winning structure:

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That’s pretty whimsical

We then watched this TED talk about the challenge and the importance of prototyping – we’re hoping to come back to this concept at other points in the year. Hoping that they had learned from the first experience and the talk, we then asked them to create a structure out of index cards to hold the maximum number of glass beads.

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Did you know that a slightly more whimsical name for those things is Dragon Tears?

Sure enough, we had five very successful teams. All of this was designed to lead into the most large-scale and whimsical limited resource challenge of all – building a boat out of trash bags and duct tape. The challenge was announced Project Runway style by none other than Heidi Klum! JK it was me, dressed in the wedding dress we happen to have at school, as Heidi Klum. I’m not sure that any of our kids watch Project Runway, but wearing a costume and attempting an accent felt pretty whimsical to me. I’ve written about the lessons about collaboration that show provides in the past. The groups will be launching their boats next week.

We started the next day with some Minute to Win It challenges. I didn’t take any pictures, but I’ll poach this one from the newsletter because I’m somewhat in it. Neal’s task was to get a playing card to stick into the watermelon.

Some of our activities this week wouldn’t necessarily qualify as whimsy. In a rotation through our classrooms in small groups, students set up their email, signed up for electives, and agreed to our drug and alcohol policy. Another teacher, Drew, and I had groups brainstorm what they wanted to see happen at school this year. Telling students how many of their suggestions got used last year (about 80%), and “yes, and”-ing even their most ridiculous ideas shows kids that they are listened to at HGS. That’s a really important thing for kids to know.

The work students did on our yard, planting flowers, pulling invasives, cleaning buses, maintaining trails, and building a bench, isn’t necessarily whimsy either, but it does help foster connections between students, staff, and school. Look how sweet the front of the building looks now!

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Our culminating activity was mainly an exercise in estimation – basically Mathematical Standard of Practice 2, Reason Abstractly and Quantitatively. Students were to ponder 6 un-googleable questions, like “when placed in the main room, which classroom would the cat enter first?,” and “could we all hold hands and circle the school building?” (it turns out we could). Here we are answering “how many paper clips would you need to span the length of the green bus?”

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Well actually at this point we had all of the paper clips in a chain and were jumping rope with them.

I have to admit, when I first came to HGS I was unsure about the whole bonding week concept. It seems like a waste of instructional time to devote three entire days to non-academic pursuits. But education is all about relationships, especially at our school. This week is valuable time for students to get acclimated to a very different educational setting if they’re new, and to get to know the classmates and teachers they’ll be working with all year. It allows us to make connections with students and understand who they are as people before we attempt to meet their needs as learners. It is absolutely a luxury to be on such familiar terms right off the bat, but it’s a luxury I wish more schools would grant themselves. Why couldn’t larger schools devote time to whimsy?


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