Freewheeling creativity at JCDS



Cardboard Challenge demonstrates active learning
Cardboard Challenge demonstrates active learning


Eli, left, and Sivan at the Global Cardboard Challenge hosted by JCDS /John Landry With all the news on high-stakes testing and the implementation of Common Core standards, it’s easy to miss another education movement building up steam. As experts have long recognized, students learn better when they work on self-directed projects they care about. The challenge has been how to make student-directed learning happen in a classroom while still teaching core competencies. Many schools are now in a wave of experimentation to get there.

Teachers at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island (JCDS) had already begun developing a project-based curriculum when their new head of school, Adam Tilove, arrived this past summer. He strongly encouraged the effort and pushed it forward with a bold step.

In past years, kids in grades 1 to 5 had weekly class instruction in computers. Tilove dropped this requirement and, instead, encouraged teachers to integrate computer skills into regular instruction, with support from an outside specialist. Class time formerly devoted to computers is now devoted to Design Lab, which Tilove described as a combination of “shop class, art class, and science class.”

The Lab is a dedicated room stocked with a variety of construction materials for student-run projects. Fifth graders, for example, worked in teams to build a scale model of Noah’s ark. First graders sketched out a “peace table” and made a cardboard prototype, before helping the teacher build the table out of wood.

Meanwhile, a parent at the school, Dave Rosler, happened to see “Caine’s Arcade,” a YouTube video about a nine-year-old boy who built a series of amusement park games from boxes at his father’s auto parts store. The video went viral and led to the formation of the Imagination Foundation, which sponsors a “Global Cardboard Challenge” in early October.

Rosler mentioned it to Tilove, who said it fit perfectly with the Design Lab and the school’s emphasis on creativity, collaboration and hands-on learning. It also fit with the school’s efforts to become a center of educational innovation for the Providence area. He encouraged Rosler to organize a big event, open to the public and hosted by the school.

The result was one of Rhode Island’s two sites for the Global Cardboard Challenge – the other was at the Providence Children’s Museum. Rosler recruited a dozen other parent volunteers from the school to handle publicity and oversee the building, with help from school staff as well.

They had plenty of material to work with, thanks to school alumnus Adam Sinel, a manager at Berger Recycling in Pawtucket. Atomic Appliance in Providence also donated cardboard boxes. Close to 100 kids came to build and play on Oct. 6, many with no other connection to the school. The school’s gym became a maze of cardboard, tape and building projects.

To add some direction, the Challenge at JCDS included two competitions: the tallest structure (the winner was over 16 feet tall), and the first bridge to span six feet while supporting ten water bottles. But Rosler was delighted to see that, in general, the kids needed little guidance from adults. From arcade games to roller sleds to ponies, children tried out all sorts of designs on their own. As Tilove pointed out, “If you give kids just a little structure, they’ll surprise you with their initiative and creativity.”

John Landry is a parent at JCDS and a member of The Jewish Voice editorial board.