Teaching by Design: The School of the Future 
Rachel Mecum in Education, Vibrant Communities

High school. Those two simple words evoke familiar feelings of fondness or dread when we look back on what tended to be a tumultuous era in many of our lives. But today, one high school teacher is turning “high school” into a phrase that evokes the joy of learning, rather than the uncertainty of future paths, and represents the ingenuity with which the best teachers approach their profession.

John Oberly, an instructor who began his career at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, Texas, by way of Teach for America, wanted to transform the school environment he encountered into something far more meaningful and impactful. After teaching math for two years, he decided to branch out and teach students leadership skills through a program he calls the “Patriot Ambassadors.” His classroom is one that engages the mind of the student and encourages freedom of thought. Students not only have the ability to move the furniture around and collaborate, they enjoy an unprecedented level of trust and feel empowered to present their ideas and strategies. They implement these strategies through mentorship of younger students, conflict mediation and other initiatives within the school.

This spring, the Ambassadors were challenged to create the “School of the Future.” The project was structured around work sessions in which teams of 2-6 students, mentored by a volunteer from Gensler Dallas, created a vision for the design of a classroom and an ancillary space of their choosing. During this process, we helped them develop an understanding of design thinking so that they could create a deliverable presentation of their ideas. This process gave the mentors a glimpse into the creativity students can display when unhindered by learned constraints, habits and realities.

Students at their final presentation with Mr. John Oberly. Image © Gensler

As most projects do, it all began with a visioning session. This helped the Gensler designers understand the problem from the student perspective, and it introduced students to how the design process helps reveal the needs and wants for a project. Our first classroom experience was a flurry of scissors and magazine pages, cutting out ideas, pictures and words to create a mood board and walk through the “whys” of the project. This session catapulted us into “Architecture 101,” which entailed explaining the concept of space and how to draw a basic floor plan for our next class.

Midway through the project we took a field trip to the Steelcase showroom to give the students an opportunity for a hands on approach. They used various materials, like construction paper, playdough, and wire pipes, to quickly build a model of their classroom and describe why they planned it that way. This trip was transformative: it lit a fire and pushed them to break mental barriers and create unique spaces in a very thoughtful, inspired way.

When the projects were complete, the teachers at TJ High School reviewed them and voted on six finalists. Those six teams then met with their mentor a final time for tips and tricks on presenting a project narrative to an audience. The semester culminated in a showcase in which each group presented their work to the DISD superintendent, teachers and the Gensler attendees. Rife with energy and inspiration, the evening ended with cheers, hugs and laughter, though it was as bittersweet as all endings are.

Students at their final presentation with Rachel, their Gensler mentor (and the author). Image © Gensler

At Gensler, we talk often about the future of our cities, and what this program taught us is that investing in students, who represent the next generation of talent, is one of the biggest and most effective ways we can invest in the future of our city. By investing in the youth of today and encouraging their ideas and passions, we nurture the beating heart of the city. Their young, passionate minds possess immense potential to make a difference. The relationships and bonds formed between mentors and students were the most important takeaway from this experience. Our hands-on approach placed us on the student’s level and gave the students confidence to ask questions. By the end of the project, my group would text me for approval and direction. My time with my students ended by taking group selfies to remember each other and the hard work put in; we left with the expectation of reconnecting once again next year.

This semester reminded us, as William Butler Yeats said, that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Our ability to connect intimately with the students gave us a glimpse into who they are and how they would like to see their school transformed. It showed us their talents and their collective potential. At Gensler we strive every day to impact our city through the work we do. During this project, we were inspired by the immense drive, passion and potential in the youth of our community. It opened our eyes to what they envision for the future, and showed us how we can support them in realizing it.

Rachel Mecum is a workplace designer, calligrapher/hand letterer and photographer who is passionate about mentoring the next generation of young designers. She believes in lighting fires in the hearts of youth and making a difference through design. Discovering her passion for design in high school, she enjoys the ability to help the next generation find their own through programs like the TJ Ambassadors. Contact her at Rachel_Mecum@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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