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January 5, 2017

The Humans of Dogpatch Project

A child’s understanding of the world is shaped first by the community around them. We start life as members of our families, then members of our school, and part of a neighborhood. Where we live shapes our conceptual framework for how we think of our place in the world and how we interconnect with others.

I feel forever grateful that AltSchool recognizes that the classroom should be more than the four walls of the school building. Rather, we can be members of our bigger community. At AltSchool Dogpatch in San Francisco, we embrace the concept that “the student is a citizen of the community, not a future citizen” so that children feel ownership in their own learning. To make education relevant, we strive to ground it in the tangible—how does what we do make a difference in the world around us?

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We practiced writing concepts and language in Writer’s Workshop, and the students became obsessed with the idea of making magazines for a classroom library so that our classmates could read our work. We then got an idea—what if people outside of our classroom could read our work too? What better way to share with members of our community than by learning more about where we live through interviews with our neighbors? With the blog, Humans of New York, as inspiration, the class sought to learn more about what the adults around them do every day and create our own Humans of Dogpatch project. In addition to achieving learning objectives in writing, our central idea for the Humans of Dogpatch project focused on students understanding the concept that individuals have different roles in society and that each role helps achieve a larger goal. All roles, no matter how big or small, are necessary and help each other in some way. The students had also been studying ancient China and they used this project as a way to make comparisons between life today and what life was like in medieval times. The most noticeable difference is that there are no farmers in Dogpatch, whereas most people making up the feudal system lived directly from the land. Plus, there is no emperor of Dogpatch (although the students liked to speculate who the emperor would be if there was one).

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We began by talking about what makes a great question and how to interview to find out more about a person’s job. The students brainstormed together and learned about interrogatives—“who, what, why, when, how?” We learned that certain questions like “What’s your favorite color?” might be interesting, but they don’t help us learn more about our main goal of finding out information about our local businesses.

We then hit the streets and visited the shops, gyms, restaurants, and museums of our neighborhood in small groups. We took pictures of important parts of our visits and asked our questions. I was blown away by the kindness and patience that all of the people in our local businesses showed. They all donated so much of their time (and also some of their merchandise) to the students. I was impressed with how the amazing people of Dogpatch were willing to help us learn by simply speaking with us. What an adventure!

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Back in the classroom, we figured out how each business relates to the others by creating a giant “Map of Dogpatch” mural on our wall. The students had to work together to paint the outsides and insides of the buildings (if you lifted the flaps, you could see what the businesses looked like on the inside). Additionally, we talked about matting our photographs and writing a label or caption. The students created the layout themselves.

Next, we wrote a first draft for our longer articles, and then a second, third, and sometimes fourth draft! The students checked capitalization, organization, punctuation, and spelling before writing a final copy to go into our magazine. They revisited their work over the course of several weeks to see what to add, fix or change to improve their writing. We celebrated the entire writing process. Finally, we learned how to organize our time to accomplish a goal and meet the deadline for our final article (although writing never really finishes, it sometimes has to come to an end).

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Lastly, we made the cover for our magazine by each contributing drawings of the people we see outside each day: Dan the gardener, other teachers, parents, classmates, people walking their dogs, people exercising in the park, business owners, etc. The students each wrote an "About the Author" section by looking at other published books and brainstorming what we wanted to share about ourselves. Currently, the students are creating 3D models of the same buildings using wood, LEDs to light up the city, and motors to see if they can make their cars drive. They are incredibly inspired to take their ideas even further and they have come up with fantastic, imaginative beginnings. From start to finish, this project was several months in the making. These first and second graders are incredibly proud of their hard work, and I am incredibly proud of them!

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