Heather Cunningham, third grade teacher at Buffalo Ridge Elementary School, spends time working with a few of her students.
Article and photos by Elean Gersack
It’s all in a days work … or maybe not. Heather Cunningham, a third grade teacher at Buffalo Ridge Elementary School, set her sights high on re-designing her classroom to help evolve student learning and spent much of her summer working on the task.
In June, Cunningham was accepted to attend the Create Something Great Think Tank conference, where more than 70 Douglas County School District teachers and administrators took part collaborating about innovation in the classroom.
At the conference, Cunningham presented a prototype of a re-invented classroom and was selected as one of just five $1,000 grant recipients. “Heather collaborated with her students to write the grant proposal seeking their input on shifting the learning environment. She asked them to redesign the classroom after they did extensive research on ‘Maker Spaces’ and innovative learning environments. The students' voice as well as Heather's vision for learning environments that was research based was the reason she was selected as a grant winner,” shared Mary Murphy, secondary curriculum coordinator for DCSD.
Cunningham sees huge importance in creating special spaces that allow for students to use hands-on, STEM, and layered approaches to learning. For example, in her new Maker Space, students might use Play-Doh, paints, Legos, stop motion, or video to creatively tell about the main idea or other theme in a literacy unit.
Maker Spaces are like learning centers with tools. “I like to think of it as a collaborative design center where kids can explore, create, tinker, and build innovative products that correlate with what they are working on in class. It's a space that allows them to think outside the box. Actually, it encourages them to break apart the box and redesign it into something better. It also allows for differentiation and the freedom to use various learning styles,” shared Cunningham.
“I appreciate that she is using her classroom purposefully and finding ways to integrate the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic into greater learning,” said parent Lisa Recine.
Representatives from the district will meet with Cunningham over the course of the year and help her with the evolution of her new classroom. Cunningham hopes to incorporate a robotics kit, a Lego story starter kit, and/or purchase MinecraftEdu to help teach units on renewable energy, life cycles, rocks and minerals, to name a few.
Cunningham is excited that the district sees the importance of how teachers can take learning to a higher level. “I want to evolve with my kids and changing from traditional teaching is the only way I can see we do it. That’s why we are here. I love my kids so much – it’s for them,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham is starting a Lego drive for her classroom. Please contact Ms. Cunningham at e-mail if you have Lego pieces or Lego mini figures to donate for her class. Items can also be dropped off at the front office at the school.