Weilenmann students get creative in the snow
When a handful of students at the Weilenmann School of Discovery got into trouble for building a fort in the snow in an unsupervised area earlier this winter, fifth-grade teacher Steven Merrell saw an opportunity.
The students had been wrong to go off on their own, but perhaps it was a valuable look into their interests. And maybe there was a chance to turn their indiscretion into something instructive.
"It ended up being this huge thing they were really proud of," Merrell said. "It was kind of like a secret society of students who knew about it. It was really cool — they were just doing it in the wrong way."
Merrell decided to turn the treasured children’s pastime of playing in the snow into engineering and design challenges for fifth-grade students. He began devising tasks for teams of students to complete during recess: build the tallest snow tower, build the best structure with four connecting walls, build animals out of the snow.
The challenges were voluntary, so participation was slow at first. But when Merrell rewarded the first winning team with a pizza, many other students were quick to dive into the next task. And it’s only grown from there.
"All of a sudden, half the grade was doing it," Merrell said. "And that’s a lot of students. It’s really cool because I’m just making these up on Sunday night at the last minute, but the kids are running with it. It’s impressive. They do things naturally that are way more creative than what I would come up with. Watching it is really cool."
Seeing the students learn how to collaborate and work together has been rewarding for Merrell.
"For me, my goal with students is always kind of to create a production team," Merrell said. "You make students have to work their stuff out together. They have to identify problems, come up with ideas and everyone can share an idea. A lot of it comes with tinkering and messing around with those different ideas. And once they go through that process, it inevitably goes awry, so they have to find out why it didn’t work and reevaluate and try again."
Ezra Rosenfield is one student who quickly embraced the challenges. He said his teams have seized every chance they’ve gotten at recess to work on their projects.
"I think the best part is just the creativity and working with the teams," he said. "I think it’s fun to do that kind of stuff, and it’s awesome to be able to play in the snow."
The amount of creativity students have shown has been surprising to Merrell, who plans to continue coming up with challenges as long as there is enough snow. Each challenge has a time limit, and as the deadline draws near, students deliver their most creative work, somehow finding a way to accomplish the task.
"That time limit puts on a unique crunch," Merrell said. "The creativity that comes out of that is so crazy. That’s one of the things that I’ve been really impressed with. There have been days when the tower is, like, two feet. Then, it comes to Friday and it’s as tall as I am."
Additionally, students have maintained the right attitude about the challenges. They have been happy to work with one another and haven’t let competition get in the way of having a good time.
"After a while, it wasn’t about who won or the tower that was the biggest or the smallest," Merrell said. "Even the students that knew they had no chance were still doing it. Some kids were coming to me and saying, ‘Is it OK if I don’t even participate in the challenge? I just want to do it.’ That, to me, is the biggest thing. They are starting to glean the reward of just playing as a team."
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“The community has really rallied behind our schools right now, which now really means a lot to teachers and staff,” said Kara Cody, Park City Education Foundation’s programs director.