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Portfolio Day at AltSchool Fort Mason: Discovering Systems

Posted by Katie Gibbons

Apr 28, 2016 12:22:09 PM


The students and teachers at AltSchool Fort Mason celebrated their work this trimester with a Portfolio Day. Students presented their deep-dive projects to parents and teachers, sharing their insights and receiving feedback.

Combining different skills and areas of study is the key to project-based learning at AltSchool. This trimester we continued our site-wide study of systems with a focus on places, as a way to further investigate how and why this concept is so important to our humanity and development. The students were provoked, inspired, and challenged to dig deeper into these concepts and express what they understand about them. They used these concepts to delve into science, history, engineering, mathematics, persuasive writing, altruism, communication, and collaboration.

Students in various grades studied the world at different historical points: from Ancient Egypt to the feudal system in the Middle Ages, and from present day problem-solving for world peace to tracing the evolution of systems in civilizations throughout time.


Lower Elementary 1: From Hunter-Gatherer Communities to Ancient City Life


This trimester, one Lower Elementary class studied how systems intersect with places. To bridge their previous study on professions, the class continued to study communities, but this time from an anthropological point of view. Their essential question centered around how communities move from primitive to developed. Starting with the dawn of human culture, the class spent time investigating what life was like for hunter-gatherers, before moving on to discover the rich and organized world of Ancient Egypt.


Lower Elementary 2: Feudal System and Medieval Times

To begin this arc, the second Lower Elementary class turned their dilapidated garden plot on the Fort Mason hill into a thriving ecosystem, capable of producing crops, to study the lives of farmers in feudal societies.


Shelter and architecture, agriculture and food gathering, trade and commerce, civics and politics, and faith and religion were explored each week in longer project-based deep dive sessions. Activities such as castle building, party planning, catapult constructing, sewing, pretzel making, manuscript writing, and chivalrous sword practice all stirred the imagination of the class to better understand this time period and societal system. To add even more artistic experiences, the class partnered with Little Opera to write and present their own songs reflecting their understanding of feudal system roles.

Upper Elementary: Systems of Peacemaking and Game Design

This trimester, the Upper Elementary classroom explored systems of place by seeking answers to the question “What does it mean to be a peacemaker?” and studied different Nobel Peace Prize winners including Malala Yousafzai, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.


In the middle of the trimester, students participated in the World Peace Game, a political science simulation in which students fill the roles of government leaders, the World Bank, arms dealers, and the United Nations. During the game they worked together to solve several world crises through negotiation. At the end of the trimester, teachers combined the students’ social justice learnings and their love of game design into one project. The students designed board and video game hybrids that aim to promote peace.

Middle School: Ancient and Modern Systems

The Middle School students explored the many systems of a contemporary city through the lens of ancient systems -the Roman Latrines, Greek and Roman Aqueducts, Mayan Number System and Hieroglyphs, Indian Stepwells, Mesopotamian Agriculture, Chinese Gas and Water Pipelines, Iran’s Baghdad Battery, Asian Paper Making, and Ancient Inca Terraced Farming. Students built a working model and a presentation detailing their depth of understanding and presented their models and research findings.


Towards the end of the trimester, each student selected a modern system that they have experienced problems with, including inequality and gender bias, and brainstormed a solution to impact the evolution of their system. They pitched their solutions to parents in the SHARK TANK. Parents gave them feedback, suggestions, ideas or contacts to help them change this system. Students are currently working on real, actionable solutions to change their worlds. Next trimester they will present these solutions at an official TEDx event at AltSchool Fort Mason, inspired by TED Talks and the concept of ‘ideas worth sharing’.

School-wide projects like this are made possible by our amazing educators who are empowered by AltSchool’s commitment to project-based learning. Our educators can guide and direct students to create projects they are passionate about and tie their learning back to core skills like reading, writing, and math.  

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Topics: AltSchool Fort Mason, Project-Based Learning

When Dreams Come True

Posted by Paul France

Aug 21, 2014 1:15:00 PM

FortMasonThe following is a guest post from new teacher, Paul France

I arrived early last Friday, adhering to my normal morning routine of a cup of coffee and plain bagel (toasted, with butter) at Starbucks before beginning my day.  Lucky for me, there is a Starbucks very appropriately placed immediately next to my pristine new school.

It was about 7:00 in the morning, and I stood across the street, watching some of the workers putting finishing touches on things, moving out some tools, and examining their work.  And that’s when it hit me.

I’m opening a school. This is literally a dream come true.

Most teachers go into education with an overly optimistic hope of changing the world.  We believe that if we’re true to ourselves and always keeping kids’ best interests at the center of everything we do, we will make and impact and we’ll make a change.  Too often, though, these hopes don’t come to fruition, teachers succumb to systemic pressures, and they burn out, like a wavering candle flickering on a low wick, drowning in its own melting wax.

No teacher wants this to happen, though.  But it happens all too often.

I sat in my new classroom, before anyone else had arrived, admiring the open space, the blank walls, even the negative space, filled with the unknown possibility of what a new school year, a brand new school, and brand new students and families will bring to my life.  I felt the urge to do a million things, to start setting things up, to order more supplies–all of that stuff.

However, my teaching partner and I have agreed to change the way we set up our classroom this year. Instead of ordering all of the furniture and decorating the walls, we are starting with a blank slate.  It occurred to me recently how impossible and impractical it is to truly set up a space for kids without their input.  Learning is messy, learning is dynamic, and learning never takes on the same form that it did the day–or the year–before.

photo (9)This year, our students will be designing their own space through a variety of provocations, design thinking experiences, and pure experimentation.  They will be building the space in which they will learn and grow, hopefully, over the course of many years.  It’s my hope that this experience will not only invest them in our space and make them love coming to school, but also that it changes the way that they think about learning and its role in our every day lives.  And it is my hope that it will fuel my passion for what I do even more.

I think, above all else, I’ve realized through working in an office for the past month, that I need my students and their ideas to keep my fire burning, just as much as they need me for the same, which is why I am so excited to design a space with them, one that makes their ideas and their unique perspective on the world visible and tangible on the four walls of our classroom.  It will be a concrete display of one of the most foundational and rudimentary truths of what education is and should be: The art of teaching requires symbiotic relationships, where the constant exchange of ideas and passions promotes synthesis and mutual growth.  I’ve missed the art, I’ve missed the chaos, and I’ve missed the synergy that permeates the classroom.

And I can’t wait for this school year to start.

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Topics: AltSchool Fort Mason