Sparked by a lunchtime discussion following one student’s family vacation to San Francisco, the Alcatraz Project became an all-encompassing learning adventure. After listening to their classmate talk about his tour of Alcatraz, students had many questions. Their teacher helped them look up information to satisfy their curiosity. She knew they were hooked on that first day, when they declined to go to Recess because they were too enthralled with finding out more about Alcatraz.
Soon the fourth-grade classroom became “The Rock.” The furniture was cleared away so that each student could create his or her own “cell.” An in-depth investigation of area and perimeter ensued as students measured and calculated to try to find out how many cells could fit in the classroom space. Next on the agenda was narrative writing as each student kept a journal in the voice of an Alcatraz prisoner. Historical research revealed who some of the inmates were and what circumstances led them to prison.
The class also took a field trip to the federal courthouse to learn more about the criminal justice system in the United States. Questions about how laws are made, how society punishes those who break its laws, and the fairness of the system rose to the forefront of class discussions. Students spent one Recess sitting on the wall, not participating, to try to understand what it feels like to be cut off from normal society.
This powerful learning project incorporated the academic content areas of reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and art. In addition, children gained valuable experience presenting their ideas, listening to the input of others, compromising, and working together. The teachers skillfully wove all of these meaty curricular areas into a topic of high student interest.