Paul Reynaud’s innovation classroom has five rules: 1. Make something. 2. Share and collaborate. 3. Think safety. 4. Have fun! and 5. Everybody picks up everything!
The rules may be few, but they speak volumes about Reynaud’s instructional approach.
Three times a week, for 45-minute class periods, Bricolage students summon their inner designers, engineers, architects, builders and makers—inventing solutions to whatever challenge Reynaud assigns. Every class, 5 minutes are dedicated to direct instruction. Kindergartners receive more hints and brainstorming time, but first graders only get loose guidelines. It doesn’t seem like much, but that’s because students learn by doing—trial and error style—with Reynaud on call for help and advice. For 20-25 minutes of project time, students think, plan and make do with their selected materials. After that, students have 15-20 minutes of free choice time, where they can continue working on the project or choose another activity.
“Fortunately, it’s very gratifying to see this—a lot of kids will say they’re going to put away the project, but they’ll basically start another one that’s the same thing but with different materials,” Reynaud says. “They use their free choice time to work on the project.”
Making ideas into tangible things
One week, kindergartners were tasked with defining what makes someone an engineer and designing something to pollinate flowers. First graders investigated how things move, how to make things move up and how to lift things. Materials run the gamut from paper straws and wooden blocks to string and Magna-Tiles.
“That’s the most exciting thing,” Reynaud says. “They come up with the ideas just from seeing possibilities in the materials.”
It’s hard for Reynaud to label his class. “To me, a lot of it is about a problem solving curriculum,” he says. “It’s not really so much about building things and making nice buildings of Legos and making machines that work. It’s about—’If I throw out a problem, what’s the process of going about collecting ideas? How do you take the ideas and turn it into a thing?’”
Making a program from scratch
With more than 20 years of teaching under his belt, Reynaud, a New Orleans native, was on a year sabbatical when Michele Murphey, Bricolage’s director of academics, approached him to help develop a science curriculum. Since there was no other program to guide their curriculum, Reynaud and Murphey exercised their own free choice to create a science program with custom goals and objectives.
In establishing and running the innovation program, the teachers do what students do. “For everybody at Bricolage,” Reynaud says, “we don’t know what this innovation program is going to look like. We’re taking all these pieces—we know how they work—and we’re trying to put them together in a new way to see if we can make it work in a better way.”
Making students believe in themselves
As Bricolage continues to grow, Reynaud envisions older grades will use the innovation class as a sort of workshop where students can explore independent projects. Technology and electronics will play a greater role with older grades, too. Regardless of the specific curriculum, innovation is a Bricolage commitment. “We don’t just make it a primary perk,” Reynaud says. “We’re still going to have this dedicated space and it’s still going to be a part of the curriculum.”
Students don’t just build things and machines during innovation—they build their own critical thinking, problem solving and confidence. Once a day, Reynaud says, a kid is surprised by accomplishment. “There are kids that come in here and make things and they didn’t believe they could make it,” he says. “It’s kind of a wonderful thing.”
Have you always been interested in making things?
I was one of eight kids. We roamed as a pack and did things together. We were always going over to the park and building stick houses and things like that. The house I grew up had a garage that was full of random bits and pieces. I can remember going in there when I was a kid, pulling things off the shelves and trying to put them together to make machines. I was kind of a tinkering-type kid. I was a professional cook for 12 years, so that to me was another way of working with my hands. I took all these pieces and make something fabulous out of them.
How has the innovation class developed since you started?
I was first grade teacher for 20 years. Starting at Bricolage was the first time I had worked with kindergarten. Kindergarten was always like the Wild West to me. The first year, I was nervous and tended to over plan. The kids just waited and waited until they could get to free choice time. Now I keep reminding myself that class shouldn’t be about finished projects. It should be about letting them have free exploration time. Being all by myself [not being part of a grade level teaching team] has thrown me back on listening to the kids more. If it looks like they’re not getting inclined planes, we’ll do more of it or we’ll go back and do it again. I’m totally free to do that.
Do parents think your class is recess?
This is still a supervised space where you can interact with other kids, do things and create things. It’s one of the rules: You’re supposed to have fun. The kids go home and say, ‘We just get to build with blocks and we get to do this and then we get to knock it down.’ Parents come in and see it’s not that way. I regularly send home a page that lists all the projects we’ve done and what I’m trying to teach through the projects.