District News

District News

AN ALLIGATOR-FREE SCHOOL IN THE TREES? Coman Hill Project Highlights Problem- Based Learning

If you lived in an alligator-infested swamp and had to send your children to school way up in the trees, what features would you look for in such a tree school to make sure it was structurally stable and safe from the gators below?

Would you want the school to have a bridge or a ladder or maybe a helicopter to deliver the children and teachers to the classrooms? Would it have support beams or security doors? How about an alligator slapper?

What would students do for fun? Would their tree school have a pool, a marshmallow maker, a pet room or an indoor playground?

These are among the creative solutions that second graders at Coman Hill Elementary School came up with as part of the Tree School Project, which called upon them to work together to design a tree school of their own.

Working in groups of three or four in the Technology Library Center over an eight-week period, students used engineering design steps to brainstorm, plan and conceive a tree school. They learned about architects and studied how treehouses are built.

This enrichment project, new this year at Coman Hill, highlights the use of problem-based learning, an approach that involves students studying a subject and working together to solve a real problem.

As they devised a school and drew their plans on paper with a cutaway view to reveal what was inside, students were practicing the important 21st-century skills and ideas of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and community. They also had fun while they designed their school in the sky.

“This project is engaging the students in their learning and making them excited about what they’re learning,” Principal MaryBeth Crupi said. “They are able to problem-solve and work collaboratively with one another. It really empowers our students.”

“Problem-based learning is important because it incorporates the 21st-century learning skills, which are so critical for student success throughout Coman Hill and all of their Byram Hills learning experiences and beyond,” she added. “We’re trying to develop those 21st-century learning skills that are so important throughout life.”

The skills on display during the project also transfer to the rest of students’ lives - in the classroom, at recess and at home with family, Ms. Crupi said. The project, which also incorporated the new Next Generation Science Standards, was conceived and taught by Rekha Singh, the building technology coordinator, and library media specialist, Jane del Villar, who guided the students through the background work and planning.

“What was great about this project was seeing the collaboration,” Mrs. Singh said. “And the creativity of the students was amazing as they worked together to come up with stable and safe ways for students and teachers to get to school.”

At the conclusion of the project, students presented their designs to their classmates, who left feedback by writing on virtual sticky notes on an interactive digital board that displayed the drawings of the schools. The students were asked to pick a school they would send their children to and leave a comment explaining their choice.

“Leaving this kind of feedback is a great way to get students to reflect on their work,” Mrs. del Villar said. Students had fun and learned about teamwork.

Sam Milim said the most important lesson he learned was that “you can’t do all the work yourself.” Caroline Waxman expressed a similar feeling, saying that “you can’t just come up with all the things yourself. You have to talk about it with your group.” She learned how to solve a problem, and when she was finished, she was “proud of myself.”

The project generated excitement for learning. “The whole process was enjoyable and engaging,” Ms. Crupi said. “We want students, especially at this young age, to enjoy learning. We’re setting the tone for all of their years at Byram Hills.”

One group of second graders presents the details of their tree school to classmates in the TLC.

A student leaves feedback on a tree school designed by classmates by writing a virtual sticky note on an interactive digital board in the TLC.


The Power of Play Shines Brightly Through the New Educational Play Space at Coman Hill


The large, open room on the lower level of Coman Hill Elementary School comes alive when students arrive and peel off in every direction, and the space quickly fills with the unmistakable sounds of happy children at play.

They’re off and running with their classmates into the huge new educational play space, climbing, jumping, hanging and spinning. They scamper up to a higher level, crawl under rollers, sit in a swing or swish down a slide, only to run back in again, laughing all the while as they catch up to their friends.

Or, they’re outside the massive structure, skipping through hula hoops and hopscotch, shooting baskets and knocking down bowling pins. There are quiet activities like drawing, reading and building in the area as well.

It’s clear that the power of educational play is a priority at Coman Hill for the students in kindergarten through second grade.

“Play is an essential part of the development of young minds and the human spirit,” says Principal MaryBeth Crupi. “We firmly believe in the importance of play. It’s always in the forefront at Coman Hill.”

Since the arrival this fall of the educational play space - a giant play structure purchased through a grant from the Byram Hills Education Foundation - students have had even more ways to play. The colorful, two-story playscape is surrounded by other activities students can enjoy to exercise their bodies and minds.

“There are many opportunities for kids to choose what their bodies need at that particular time and space,” Ms. Crupi says. “We are so grateful to the BHEF for providing us with such a wonderful opportunity to increase our students’ learning through the educational play space.”

It’s through educational play with classmates that students learn and practice essential skills like problem-solving, communication and collaboration.

“They’re learning so much through play,” Ms. Crupi says. “There’s a plethora of skills they’re working on in their most natural environment, which is comfortable and conducive to learning.”

The lower-level room is used for indoor recess, it’s a place where teachers can take students for a movement break or a reward and to help meet Ms. Crupi’s challenge to find 10 extra minutes a day for play.

Since the start of the school year, teacher Jennifer Rowell has been bringing her second graders to the play area every Friday morning for 15 minutes.

“It’s important for them to be able to stretch and move and be social,” Ms. Rowell said. “It’s a time for them also to practice their social skills, like communicating and problem-solving and using Kelso.” Her students enjoy the experience. “It’s a treat,” she said. “They look forward to it.”

One of her second graders, Jo-Anne Schilling, says she loves using the playscape, going down the slides, over or under the “rolly things” and playing with her friends. “It’s amazing because it’s so much fun,” Jo-Anne said. “Because people are always bumping into each other, you learn from your mistakes.”

Her classmate Benny Kemler also loves the play space, and enjoys the break from classroom learning. “It’s very fun and relaxing,” he said. “It’s nice to just be in different spots, not just sitting in a chair.”

While the structured classroom is the place for academics, the time spent in the play area gives young students a chance to explore their social-emotional selves as they work together.

“The best part is that they get to be connected in a way that’s not so structured,” Ms. Rowell said. “In the classroom I tell them who their partner is, what kind of group work they’re doing, but when they’re downstairs they get to pick and float and get to know each other a little better in that informal play setting. The free time is important for them to grow their whole selves.”

Ms. Crupi encourages teachers to find those extra 10 minutes for daily play to give academics a boost. “Research has said that when we are able to get kids a little bit physically active, they can come back to their studies and be more engaged and more attentive to learning,” she said. “A couple of teachers are saying, ‘I notice a difference. They seem to be far more focused.’”

No other neighboring district has a massive indoor educational play space like the one at Coman Hill, Ms. Crupi notes, adding that her students appreciate their unique opportunity. “Lots of kids have commented that we are very lucky to have this play space,” she said.

Another benefit? When bad weather cancels outdoor recess, Ms. Crupi no longer hears the groans. “Now when I have to announce indoor recess, I hear squeals of delight,” she said. “They absolutely look forward to using the play space.”

Whenever the stillness of the huge room is broken as students enter to have fun with their friends, without even realizing it, they are working on important life skills that will transfer into the classroom and stay with them through a lifetime of learning.

“These are life skills that are going to make our students successful as they travel to Wampus, to HCC, to the high school and beyond,” Ms. Crupi said. “These are skills that are essential for success.” “Play is such an essential component for early elementary education,” Ms. Crupi adds. “This play space just radiates our belief system.”

Educational play is a priority at Coman Hill, where students now have many more ways to play with the new educational play space. Located in a large room on the lower level of the elementary school, the play space is surrounded by all kinds of activities including hula hoops and basketball and reading, drawing and building.

With slides, swings and plenty of space to move around, there are many ways to play in the new educational play space at Coman Hill.