Thursday, September 26, 2013

Much More than a Ball Pit: Building Community & Embracing Failure

It all started with a conversation that generated an idea.  “What if Almond had its very own ball pit?”  Allow me to provide some context.
 In an effort to get to know my new staff at Almond, we had 1-1 conversations during which we discussed what school quality was most treasured.  The strength of community and relationships rose to the top.  To build on this priority, at our first gathering we watched the SoulPancake video called, “Take a Seat | Make a Friend.”  The video captures the magic that ensues when two people engage in dialogue around a question or prompt. Although we didn’t have a ball pit, an icebreaker was orchestrated around this concept.  Teachers formed groups and “chewed on life’s big questions,” like, “Who is someone that inspires you?” or “Find something that your group has in common.”

A few days later, a teacher and I were chatting and reflecting on the power of conversation.  She remarked, “What if Almond had its very own ball pit?”  Thinking that her statement was akin to, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if we flew to the moon tomorrow,” I marveled and responded with, “Yes, that’d be amazing.”

A week later, the teacher approached me with excitement and shared, “The ball pit is ready.” 
My mind filled with joy and panic simultaneously. 

My concern stemmed from a financial standpoint.  I anticipated that we would need A LOT of balls and couldn’t wrap my mind around the dollar figure it might take to fill the container.  Thus I started thinking through how to approach this from a different angle; modify the pit so that kids could sit inside on chairs with the balls at the floor or adjust the height of the pit.  I fretted, worried and hesitated.

That same marvelous teacher sat down with me once again and reminded me of my very own words:  curiosity, courage, perseverance and passion.  After a pep talk, it was game on!  Let’s do it!   Let’s order balls and get the show on the road.  We looked at the specs on the web, made our best estimate and ordered 1500 balls.  Did I say fifteen hundred?  Yes, that had to be enough (wink, wink).  We eagerly awaited their arrival.

A grand vision for the unveiling of the ball pit followed.  We would model the event in the likeness of the Soul Pancake video by constructing it in front of the students.  The song Home, by Phillip Phillips, would accompany its construction and drive home the message of community through quotes such as, “you’re not alone,” and “you can always be found.”
Eight remarkable fifth graders created posters to walk across the stage.  Everything was falling into place.  Thursday morning arrived and we eagerly awaited the arrival of a massive quantity of balls.

At 1pm I walked through the front office and saw three large boxes.  Three.  Large, not huge.  Uh, oh…first sign of trouble.  “Where are the other boxes?” I asked.  There were no other boxes.

No problem…focus on solutions…we’ll figure this out.  Our incredible parent who built the box (honoring his request to stay nameless) assembled it and we put in 1500 balls.  Uh, oh…certainty of trouble…the balls filled less than ¼ of the inside.

Again, no problem…we can and will figure this out.  We brainstormed how to fix this…we could build a platform and change the depth of the box and create a faux front.  But then the FUN factor of getting into a ball pit would be minimized because our ball count was so limited.  Then brilliance struck…what if we add playground balls.  That idea spurred exercise balls.  We can put the large ones in first, then the middle and finish it off with the small ones.  Alright, Plan B -  in tact.

The assembly was a great success.  The student’s curiosity was peaked and a playful atmosphere arose when the parent putting together the pit tossed balls into the audience.  It was electrifying.  The volunteer students were confident, enthusiastic and flexible when the lyrics didn’t quite come through as they did during our rehearsal.

Then came the ball pit interactions.   Initially I had asked for 8 student volunteers; 6 to walk signs across the stage and only two to get into the ball pit to have conversations.  When prepping for the event I explained to the 8 that I only needed 2 to get into the ball pit.  However ALL of them wanted to participate.  I did my best to dissuade them by showing them the video, reminding them they would have to do this in front of 514 students and many parents…I asked again and ALL 8 hands went up.  To honor their courage and commitment, I adjusted my thinking and reworked the original script.  I only had one question drafted, so we worked through a lunch and they brainstormed their own questions/prompts.  The only requirement was that their partner could not be a long time friend.  They did an amazing job!

Once they were in the pit, a new challenge presented itself.  How does one get themselves out of the ball pit?  Thanks to the brut strength of two of the “pit crew” members, we were able to lift the students out. 

As a follow up, each class at our school is contributing their own prompt/question.  Conversation starters such as, “What do you look forward to the most when you wake up each day?” and “What is your best quality?” and “What is your pet peeve?” are streaming in.  This ball pit will be a centerpiece for our school at underscoring our commitment to each other.

The ball pit story doesn’t end here though, there is a next chapter.

We’ve reflected on our successes and the challenges and will be applying the design thinking process (understand, observe, define, ideate, prototype and test) to create an even better prototype.  In fact, we’re thinking through how we might recruit a group of students to lead this effort in creating a mobile ball pit that can potentially be marketed to schools around the country.  The students will be part of designing the business model, improving on prototype #1, conducting market research, advertising, budgeting and more. 

What better way to revolutionize learning than to provide an authentic project-based opportunity to Almond students!

Contributed by Erika Benadom, Principal – Almond Elementary

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