One recess period in early fall, a handful of fifth graders found some fallen branches near the wooded path behind the school and decided to see if they could get them to stand up. “When that worked,” said fifth-grader Ethan B., “we just started looking in the woods for more pieces to add.”
What began as a simple design challenge during their time away from desks and books, months later became the talk of the school. Emails between teachers about the “Tipi Saga” led to an intervention from our facilities staff that ended with a fantastic student-led resolution to support their shelter-building endeavors.
“Primarily created by 5th graders Ayden S., Alex C., Teddy P., Ethan S., and Ethan and Gabrielle B. (3rd grade), the students call it a tipi. Decorations include a woven door, an egg-filled bird's nest, and macrame leaves inside,” describes Grade 5 Assistant Teacher Miriam Smirnov. “Second graders added holes in the ceiling to watch for UFOs and increase the supply of fresh air. It began as a simple piled-straw fort and evolved throughout October and November into the current structure. Future plans include interior lighting using Chanukah lights and a battery pack, and building more structures to create a teepee neighborhood.”
“The kids started bringing in rope and sticks from home to assist in the building of this structure. And they’re decorating it. They’re really excited about it,” reflected Rebecca Burack, President of our Board of Trustees and mother to Ethan, who was among the original group of students working on the outdoor structure.
Despite the students’ excitement, concerns for their safety also arose from the school’s facilities staff. Bruce Boyd and his team, among many other things, are responsible for maintaining the safety of the building and exterior structures which included, in this case, the lean-to. After carefully assessing the integrity of the structure, the team concluded that the students’ tipi had to come down. It was deconstructed, much to the dismay of the second-through-fifth graders who had spent so many weeks carefully constructing it.
Distraught at having found their hard work undone, the original group of fifth graders sought a meeting with Head of School Mallory Rome. The students, upset but hopeful at finding a solution, asked if there was a way that they could continue building their shelter that would be acceptable to those charged with their safety. The meeting led to a discussion among the school’s admin council where a plan began to form.
“I understand there have been some questions around the construction, deconstruction, and now potential reconstruction of the tipi by grades 2-5,” explained a school-wide email from Assistant Head of School Dave Rosenberg. “The tipi was taken down due to safety concerns, though I understand that this was not received well by the students. In speaking with Bruce, we have come up with a plan to allow the students to continue to work on this in a way that will ensure safety both of the structure and keep them free from prickers, ticks, etc in the woods.”
For the remainder of the week following this turn of events, students were asked not to continue their work on any structures. Bruce Boyd, a professional carpenter, and Matt Stone, member of the Rashi facilities crew for 7 years and a certified outdoor living instructor, offered to provide training to the students during recess so they could continue their efforts in a knowledgeable and safe way.
“One teacher on duty each day should be in that area so that he/she can learn from Matt and Bruce and then continue the supervision in future recesses,” the email further explained.
“We think we’ve turned a not-so-good situation into a positive, fun learning experience,” reflects Barbara Ross, Rashi’s Director of Finance and Operations. “I think this is a wonderful project showcasing staff working with the kids. How often do you get a certified instructor in outdoor living and a carpenter to talk with your students?”
And, it seems, this self-initiated design challenge has been entertaining not just for our students but for the teachers supporting them. “It’s amazing to watch the waves of participants thinking and working together on this project,” says Grade 5 Assistant Teacher Sharon Packer.
“Before you know it,” Dave Rosenberg mused of the situation, “the snow will be falling and we’ll be on to snow forts!”