Feature in Sunset Magazine 1939.

Feature in Sunset Magazine 1939.

In the September 1939 Issue of Sunset Magazine, Hillbrook’s Village of Friendly Relations was featured as a testament to the innovative and human-centered approach to education, then head of school Mary Orem was passionate about.  According to detailed documents stating the purpose of the project, Ms. Orem designed a curriculum for children that would;

1) Allow children not normally celebrated in a traditional school setting to be leaders, 2) Empower students with real world problem solving and building skills,  and 3) Encourage children to practice peaceful resolution to conflict in a mistake friendly environment. The Village was not just a cluster of play houses, it was a scale model society, with real world problems for children to learn from. In a sense, it was also Hillbrook’s first attempt at redesigning the classroom.

Real Tools + Real Materials + Real Problems = Real Learning

Real Tools + Real Materials + Real Problems = Real Learning

Sadly, the village project ended when funding for the buildings was supplanted with needs to keep the school running during war time. World War II was a time of great nationalism, do it yourself mentalities and a desire to reduce, reuse and repair.  When the war ended, priorities shifted again. In the 1950’s and 60’s American culture moved away from a DIY mindset that celebrated the role of women in the workforce, to one of hard gender roles and compulsive consumerism. Perhaps more insidious a shift, was the competition centered approach to education that defined the Space Race.  As a result, in the past five decades, less focus has been on real world problems and integrating subjects for a more holistic approach to learning. More emphasis has been placed on teaching the subjects of math, writing, science and reading in artificial silos, with an increased emphasis on ranking and high stakes test taking. School became less about empowerment through learning, and more about competition for coveted college and high school admissions placement.

Fast forward to March, Friday the 13th 2015, and you may have read the Friday letter by Mark Silver declaring how the Village of Friendly Relations was the original “Makers Movement,” a movement that was paralleled by the Craftsman and Progressive Education movements of the early parts of the last century.  A re-examination of how we teach and learn is at the forefront of educational discussions, as Mr. Silver noted in that letter. In the 1930’s, Hillbrook, then The Children’s Country School, was at the forefront of innovative curriculum that has been proven to be better for learning and for kids. Today, we see similar work continuing in much of what we do intentionally at Hillbrook.

Gabriella Underwood, explains how she solved the hard roof problem for the Tiny Green House Project, a project first launched in 2012 as part of the science department redesign to include science in the context of STEAM, architecture, engineering and mathematical arts. Gabby formally joined the team as a member of the Y.E.S. elective of 2014.

Gabriella U., explains how she solved the hard roof problem for the Tiny Green House Project, a project first launched in 2012 as part of the science department redesign to include science in the context of STEAM, architecture, engineering and mathematical arts. Gabby formally joined the team as a member of the Y.E.S. elective of 2014.

The topic of the Village houses has come up a lot in the past three years, thanks to the work of resident historian Mr. Paul DiMarco and his book and documentary entitled, “As the Twig is Bent: The Story of the Children’s Country School”. Inspired by the video documentary, which was shown to students in the Spring of 2013, five 6th graders approached their then science and engineering teacher to ask if they too could build a house in the Village. “Why not?” I wondered, and for the past two years we have been co-learning as a school, and as a team, what it takes to build a Village house.

Katherine Bonelli (2015) mentoring Jaden Steinbach (2018) on making floor plans in 2013 after completing her class project Tiny Green Houses. Katherine joined the HHH team in the spring of 2014 as team documentarist.

Katherine B. (2015) mentoring Jaden S. (2018) on making floor plans in 2013 after completing her class project Tiny Green Houses. Katherine joined the HHH team in the spring of 2014 as team documentarist.

Class of 2015 members, Emily S., Emma S., Lilah P., Sam B., and Lora K., having spent time consulting with the school’s long time contractor Kim Midstokke, felt armed with a list of action items, such as drawings and a budget, to present to current head of school Mark Silver. Their proposal was accepted, and now the hard work of learning how to build a house began. We had taken on a very hard problem indeed. We needed to enlist a team of experts to get this project off the ground.

During their 7th grade year, the team still consisted of only the original five students. We met every Monday at lunch during the spring semester with our mentor architect, Stephan Sun,  now attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. At the end of their 7th grade year, the team had real architectural drawings based on their ideas and designs for the new building, the title of which was now the Hillbrook History House.

Floor plan drawings made with mentor architect Stephan Sun.

Floor plan drawings made with mentor architect Stephan Sun.

Armed with the knowledge of how an architect takes ideas and makes them into drawings our next step and the hardest work of all was still to come. How do you take drawings and actually build a house? Enter building mentor Tom Jameson of the Hillbrook Maintenance crew and parent mentor Sarah Kately, project management guru and indispensable project champion to the HHH team.

Prototype making lesson in the iLab with mentor architect Stephan Sun. Laser cut cardboard for rapid prototyping to define the form of the new village house.

Prototype making lesson in the iLab with mentor architect Stephan Sun. Laser cut cardboard for rapid prototyping to define the form of the new village house.

In the fall of 2014, the HHH team grew again. Under the title of Y.E.S. (young engineering scientists), a first time elective for 8th graders was offered to solve this problem of how to build a house. This first quarter elective was a prototype capstone project, an initiative of Hillbrook’s growing Maker Education program, to see what students could accomplish with four hours a rotation dedicated to a passion based project, designed by kids for kids.

Nevin Richards joins the HHH team in the Y.E.S. elective as team mathematician. Nevin kept record of how math was an integral part of building homes.

Nevin R. joins the HHH team in the Y.E.S. elective as team mathematician. Nevin kept record of how math is an integral part of building.

This elective was inadvertently designed to mimic the holistic, student-centered approach of the original Village Project designed by Mary Orem. The HHH team dutifully documented their learning in areas of math (geometry, budgeting, blueprint making, and scale), literacy (blog to tell the story), technology (using digital fabrication for prototyping scale models), art (architecture lessons), historical sciences (research, analysis, primary document reading), science (material science, physics), and citizenship (sustainability, resource management, public speaking, etc.). The Y.E.S. elective also opened up this rare and amazing opportunity to more members of the soon to be graduating class of 2015. The team now consisted of 8th graders Lora K., Sam B., Liliah P., Emma S., Isabel P., Meghan M., Katherine B., Chaaya P., Gabby U., Nevin R., Seamus S., and Caryus P.

Alan mentors the team around what would make the best foundation for the house and its building site.

Alan mentors the team around what would make the best foundation for the house and its building site.

Once the fall elective ended, the team continued to shift and grow. Having constructed four walls and a floor, their fall term goal, the team faced their next hard problem; building a roof with an asymmetrical pitch design.

Aspiring architect for the HHH team, Lora Kateley shows off her handy work to classmate Nicole Grant. They stand within the walls of the first quarter elective construction.

Aspiring architect for the HHH team, Lora K. shows off her handy work to classmate Nicole G.. They stand within the walls of the first quarter elective construction.

The “roof problem” was thrown around for a few weeks until Tom Jameson and Ken Hay volunteered to help solve this problem by volunteering their Monday afternoons to allow the HHH team to build. Adult mentors now consisted of builders Ken Hay, Alan Bahnsen and Tom Jameson, project managers Sarah Kateley and Mrs. Pac, as well as documentarists and story tellers Paul DiMarco, Debbie Dembecki, and Ms. Flores, to name just a few.

Reminiscent of the original builders enjoying the structural integrity of their hard work, core team members Lilah Penner Brown, Sam Borbas, Emma Skeet and Isabel Perez atop the "roof problem."

Reminiscent of the original builders enjoying the structural integrity of their hard work, core team members Lilah P., Sam B., Emma S. and Isabel P. atop the “roof problem.”

As it turns out, it takes a village to build a village. During the Spring quarter electives, the HHH team members will continue to work on the construction of the house for 4 hours a rotation with mentor Ken Hay and Tom Jameson. As of now, no one knows what “finished” will look like, but everyone agrees that rediscovering our history through this History House has been a rich learning experience for all. Even the kindergarten study group focusing on woodworking got a chance to help add roof shingles to the new house as part of their curriculum.

Ms. Collins, Kindergarden teacher and co-learner Victor Torres, are members of the Wood Working study group. Study groups let students chose topics they are passionate about, while learning in a social and constructivist environment.

Megan Collins, Kindergarden teacher and co-learner Victor T., are members of the Wood Working study group. Study groups let students chose topics they are passionate about, while learning in a social and constructivist environment.

Perhaps the most important message learned from this project, is that working together is how our community can solve hard problems. Stay tuned, as the construction of a tiny house revives the kind of educational experiences we strive for at Hillbrook.