Free Union is buzzing about Tangents class, a new offering by teacher Jonathan Shay. Veering off on a tangent can be unproductive and annoying. But when it is fueled and encouraged in elementary school, wildly creative things can happen... like benches for warming stations around campus, interpretive signs for restored ecosystems along the nature trail, boardwalks over our wetlands, and a deepened understanding of art, science, math, and social phenomena—plus a few more side benefits, like intellectual stimulation, emotional tranquility, pride of ownership, and a very excited group of kids working together!
Naming the class “Tangents" was Jonathan’s way of embedding the idea that we'll be free to take side trips to explore areas of interest to the kids—self-directed projects that encourage teamwork and problem solving.
But what if they didn’t view these side trips as a distraction and made them the goal? Call it “creative wandering.” In this paradigm, students look for the tangents, the points of connection between and among areas of study, and use them to show the ways that disciplines are related and the ways they reinforce one another. These tangents can be surprising and delightful.
As he thought about the class, Jonathan wanted to use a light touch. For example, assigning a step by step predetermined process to make a flying propeller takes away a lot of the creativity and agency. Too often children are given explicit directions for everything, which doesn’t help them develop problem solving skills. So there will be a balance between direction and a path they determine for themselves.
Jonathan's view is that academic content is fairly easy to include in almost any project. For example, for their first project the older kids built benches. It’s a perfect opportunity to learn about angles. Jonathan’s drawing showed the top with a 72 degree angle so that 10 of benches fit together in a decahedron. One student knew that the interior angles of a 4 sided figure add up to 360 degrees and was able to identify all the angles based on that. The kids are learning about how the drawing shows the relative three dimensional views of the bench. They talked about using a drawing as a planning tool. While the benches were not self directed, this initial project provided students with a pathway for them to replicate on their own projects.
The younger kids started with a project using scraps of wood from Jonathan’s workshop. He dumped these on the work bench and provided hot glue and paint for the children to make their own creations. Some of them were truly wonderful. This activity provides an introduction to assembling pieces to make something of their own design. The children love the opportunity to create in three dimensions—not a single kid was bereft of ideas.
When Jonathan started designing this class, he focused on themes of inquiry, and developed projects that relate to the natural world. As you know, our school devotes considerable effort to helping children appreciate the environment and we have a superb campus in which to do it. Jonathan was drawn to the Greek elements of earth, air, fire and water, beginning with air. He developed a number of projects that relate to air, wind, sound and flight—from parachutes to kites to propellers.
Teachers intuitively “get” this approach, but when teachers from other schools ask what I’m teaching, what's the academic content, what are the themes and how I’m going to do it, I’m afraid that I can’t come up with a particularly satisfying answer. The truth is that it’s less about what we’re learning and more about the process and the physical environment that encourages creation. The learning follows naturally, but it doesn’t usually proceed in a straight line. (More of a tangent!) The class is intended to support the work of the other teachers and to reinforce their efforts, but Jonathan doesn’t expect a comprehensive study on an academic theme. It’s scatter shot, but a given student may develop a particular interest in a topic and dive deep.
In this class, the curriculum is flexible and inspired by student curiosity. From start to finish they follow the spark of an idea from brainstorming to hypothesizing, designing, building, testing, and refining. It is wonderful to see the students so engaged. They will take their projects home and continue to add on and experiment, even long after the day's class is over. They've made benches and tables for classroom use, planes and trains with spinning wheels and propellers... even pinball machines, race cars, and elaborate marble runs. If they can imagine it, Jonathan will find the tools and pieces to help them build it.