A group of 5th graders at Oak Park Elementary pulled off a feat on Thursday morning that reminded observers of laying the transcontinental railroad and the transatlantic telegraph cable.

Each of them held a section that resembled a rack for Scrabble letter tiles. Their shared goal was to transport a golf ball (used to represent the seed of the last tree on Earth!) clear across the classroom and deposit it into a small pail.

Their first attempt didn’t get very far, but within minutes they’d made astonishing progress, thanks to a breakout of trust and teamwork.

The exercise was one early indication that this week’s 5th Grade Leadership Academy, the brainchild of Oak Park principal Jill Bryson and her staff, is going to pay dividends.

Student-centered classrooms are a cornerstone of the Schools for Rigor model that DMPS is transitioning to in stages. Oak Park is not one of the SFR pilot schools, but both Harding and North, where Oak Park 5th graders head next, are.

“We wanted to do something to prepare our 5th graders for the collaborative learning ahead and right after Winter Break made sense as a great time for a fresh start,” Bryson said. So, with the help of her 5th grade teachers and the district’s counseling and communities-in-schools staff, she designed a customized week of instruction for the Oak Park seniors. It began on Wednesday, the first day back from break, on the campus of Grand View University.

“We wanted to get them off by themselves to make the point that this was a special opportunity just for them,” said Bryson.

On Thursday they were back at school, rotating through a range of activities aimed at identifying each student’s strengths. Small groups were formed to surmount challenges like how to get that precious seed from here to clear over there with nothing more than these little wooden racks and each other to accomplish the task. Or turn over the mat everyone was standing on without knocking anyone off of it, like yanking the tablecloth out from under the table settings without toppling or spilling a thing.

Community Youth Concepts was on hand to facilitate the activities, a local nonprofit whose mission is “to engage and connect Iowa students through youth development programming and to provide coaching, training, and technical assistance in best practices…”

All of the 5th graders began the day in the school gym, but once the small groups were assembled they scattered throughout the building to tackle a sort of team-building obstacle course.

Occasional intermissions were opportunities to sit in “restorative circles” and reflect on what was and wasn’t working. In one such session among the seed squad, Will, the CYC facilitator, asked the group what they’d learned so far.

“That trust isn’t just something that makes someone feel good,” said Michael. “It’s also something that’s required for people to accomplish things.”

Wow! That sounded kind of like a golf ball that painstakingly made its way clear across a big room plunking into the pail that was its target.

The culminating dinner for the 5th grade families next Monday night at Oak Park is going to taste sweet – and the last semester of elementary school is going to be different than all of the others.

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