Engaging Students Online, Applying the Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning, Backwards Thinking™ in a 4th Grade Classroom in the San Gabriel Unified School District

By Jessica Heim, The Center for City Building Education•Design-based Learning

As I entered the Zoom classroom at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning in November, 2020, I was surprised by the nearly 40 smiling, Roosevelt Elementary 4th graders that greeted me through my computer screen. Not one camera was turned off and by the looks on their faces, every student seemed highly engaged and ready to learn. Their teacher, Ms. Georgia Singleton, greeted her students warmly. What she said next had me intrigued and wishing I was in the 4th grade again.

“Class,” she exclaimed, “we have a message from our City’s Avatars! We are in the dark! You have learned about different types of energy. Please help! We need to decide together what kind of energy to have in our City so our Avatars can survive!”

The students had been assuming leadership roles as Avatars for the small, 3-D City of the Future that they were collaboratively imagining and building online as the yearlong context for the subject matter they were being taught. For the past week, during Ms. Singleton’s Guided Lessons, the class had learned about clean energy through various textbook readings, research, and videos on the different forms of clean energy, including wind, solar, hydroelectricity, geothermal, biomass, and tidal energy. (Instead of assigning quizzes or worksheets to assess student learning, Ms. Singleton connected learning back to the 3-D City of the Future to promote higher-level thinking skills, creativity, collaboration, and communication, while still teaching the required grade level content area standards.)