We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship Part 1

It was late 1989, and this was one of my last undertakings before I resigned from the prospect of Tomorrow’s Schools to argue for something very different, an alternative symbolised by what follows.

We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship. Would you like to come and visit us?

It was a call from Dorothy Wharehoka, principal of Colville, a three-teacher school on the western coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.

The road north of Thames wended its way around the coast line – pohutukawa and the sea on one side, high cliffs and hills on the other. To the west the Auckland isthmus, just a blur; in front the remoteness and stillness of the peninsula.

It was a wrench to have to turn away from the sea and face the hills.

A tortuously climbing and descending road – and there was Colville.

A hall, general store, a craft-centre, a few houses and, of course, the school. 

The Walkie-talkie crackled.

‘Reporting flying rocks,’ the Captain (the teacher, but on other occasions Co-ordinators carried out this function) announced.

‘Investigating now,’ Nav (the Navigator) responded.

‘Any samples for Sci (the Scientist)?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Will you please check and organise?’

‘There does seem to be some rubbish.’

‘And identification of the debris?’

‘Seems earth debris.’

‘I can see through it.’

‘You should recover some and hand over to Sci.’

‘Captain to Collator.’


‘Report from Nav.’

‘From visual identification the debris is transparent.’

‘Nav to Captain.’


‘Should I go out?’

‘No – send someone else.’

‘While recovery occurring, show the visitor our process.’

The Nav starts to move away from controls.

Captain – sharply: ‘Make sure your instruments are on automatic before you do so.’

Nav looks embarrassed.

‘Sci to Collator.’

‘Rock identified.’

‘It’s plastic.’ 

Dominating the room was the control room shaped with foil, polystyrene, and a painted mural which could be seen through the viewing window.

The mural and materials eerily reflected the panel lights as they flicked on and off. Hunched over the panel the Navigator was intent on her task.

The Captain sent out orders to the crew on the shift.

In the communication centre, the duty radio technician (Sparks) was receiving messages on a walkie-talkie.

Beside Sparks was a fax (a constructed one) and a typewriter.

Opposite the communications centre a Collator was putting the day’s events on record using the word processor.

Next down from the collating room were the sleeping quarters. Four sleeping bags were propped upright for the purpose.

At the back of the room on the other side a Medic was tidying the galley. A washing machine, shower, store, and microwave had been constructed. Dehydrated food filled the galley cupboards.

Next up from the galley, a patient was receiving treatment from a Medic in the sickbay.

First aid equipment was neatly stored on the shelves, a blood pressure gauge hung on a hook, beside it various charts.

In the laboratory, a Scientist (Sci) was working on report of a rock that had been handed to her for identification. Microscopes, sample bottles, and trays cluttered the bench. A plastic container held samples of rocks to help in any identification that was required.

In the passage-way running through the spaceship, two crew members were using the listening post, four were reading, three were working on a project, and five were being prepared by a Medic for a fitness session.

Network was able to take a crew member away from her busy schedule to talk to her about her experiences in the construction and running of the spaceship.

‘I think the teacher came up with the idea.’

It started with us doing a study on pioneers in space and we were asked to list, in five minutes, as many ways of communicating as possible.

Some questions arose from that:

• How do you get power?

• What makes a computer go?

We did studies in groups about the various kinds of communication.

The study for my group was radio telephone – its invention, the nature of the technology.

We were asked to do logbooks of what we did each day. They were written in the morning mainly – but also for homework.

All sorts of things came into the study, for instance, using the conversion chart to turn fractions into decimal numbers and percentages.

We knew we were building up to turning the room into a spaceship.

To decide the name we had a vote.

Lots of boys wanted it to be called Steinlager but good sense prevailed and we called it Voyager III.

Everybody made a plan of the spaceship to scale. Some people worked together. A few of the plans were presented as dioramas.

We took a few ideas from each of the plans. Groups were then formed – Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.

Each group had a Co-ordinator who was responsible for the smooth running of each shift; a Navigator responsible for keeping the ship on course; a Sparks to receive and send messages; a Medic for fitness and nutrition; a Scientist who did the lab work; and a Collator who put all the data into the computer.

Some of them said, ‘Oh I don’t want to do that’, and so on, but they’ve buckled down to it fairly well.

We really have two groups to work in – the shift group and our specialist group.

The other groups have gone smoothly but, unfortunately, we’ve got both the class clowns in one of my groups.

Susie and I really work hard. We’re trying to bring the two boys in, but it’s really hard.

For the parents it was a sort of surprise. When I told mum she said ‘Wow!’

She thought it was really good.

‘That’ll be excellent for communication skills and how to get on with one another.’

First of all we put tables in place. We had to measure from the roof to the floor to get the upward constructions right.

Five centimetres represents one metre on the plan.

The first tables were the three for the controls.

Originally we had bunks for sleeping but we found they took too much room, so we put in upright sleeping bags.

Imagine our surprise when we found that’s the way they really do their sleeping on spaceships.

I’m a Medic so with the other Medics we scrubbed the floor of the galley. As Medics we look after the food side of things too.

Michael and Tom more or less started with making a microwave.

One of the boys I work with is quite sexist.

‘We’ll do that,’ he says. ‘You’re not good enough to do it, and so on.’

It seemed like the boys were doing most of it, or trying to do it.

I started getting bored.

‘What can I do?’

‘I don’t know.’

So I went and made up the fitness chart. I got it from books.

Meanwhile, they were making the pantry.

Making the fitness charts was quite hard.

We all helped to paint the pantry.

They’d made a washing machine by that time.

I, however, made a shower. Some plastic from home was the main material.

On the whole, Mrs W. accumulated the materials to build the basic construction. We brought the bits and pieces that went within it.

All this time the other groups got together to build their construction – the Scientists, Sparks, and so on.

We all had a hand in the mural you can see out the viewing window. All of us felt very proud of that.

I think some of the walkie-talkies came from the Colville Action Group. The bubbly material is great for various purposes.

We’ve been going about four weeks.

What happens each day depends on who is in control.

After eighty minutes there is a change around.

Alpha, for instance, does research; Gamma does some regular school activities for rest and recreation – reading, listening to music, listening to tape, doing fitness; and Beta in control.

The Medic in the groups takes the fitness for rest and recreation.

The teacher lets us know what other things we had to do during the day, but we can do them in any order.

One of the boys is something of a perfectionist. That’s his trouble. He’s never satisfied with what he’s done. I think something is excellent. He doesn’t see it that way and gets irritable.

He’s settling down a bit now.

Arguments come up from time to time.

I was holding a bracket and he grabbed it off me.

‘Here I’ll hold that.’

‘Tom,’ I said. ‘I know how to hold that.’

And I grabbed it back again.

The main benefit as far as I’m concerned is that we’ve had to learn to work with people we don’t usually work with.

And we’ve gained a lot of new knowledge; we’ve used our mathematics; been able to do things for ourselves; learnt typing skills; and learnt how to use the library better.

If we did another one next year, and I think we should do one each year, people would learn to get on with things quicker.

People wouldn’t fool around for so long. They were really just nervous about not being able to do what was needed.

One of the children is a wanderer, a ‘planet’.

‘Stop being a planet,’ we say.

The whole thing is very demanding.

And I think Michael and Tom have learnt something about me and Susie, and we’ve learnt something about them.

It’s all very demanding though.

You have to concentrate.

When you are on shift you have to get into it – real decisions have to be made, and fast sometimes.

And when you are on other things, rest and recreation, for instance, there’s work to be done. 

Network then talked with the teacher, Dorothy Wharehoka.

In the first stage it was a matter of research and gathering information.

They did:

• Space fact quizzes

• Viewing of space videos

• Library research

• Related mathematical understandings

• A mural to scale of the solar system on the netball court

• Story writing

• A project on space pioneers

• Communications through space

• The painting of the viewing window mural

• Log books.

The big day was on a Wednesday towards the end of September. The crew assembled in the temporary conference room. By a process of elimination ballots, the name of our spaceship was chosen and our destination decided upon.

We were Voyager III, and our destination was to go through a black hole and into another solar system.

We would travel as far and as well as our imagination would allow.

Before we did the solar system on the netball court, the children were somewhat sceptical about information concerning the size and positioning of the sun.

However, by the time the ground mural was complete they were talking excitedly about the vastness of it all.

There were some initial fears that not everyone would get a fair go at the painting. But everything settled down.

The programme each day was for one group to work on the space ship planning while the remaining crew members did work sheets, their individual log entries, the fitness programme, or the pioneers in space studies.

At times we were behind with our log books, so we often set aside time to concentrate on them.

It was interesting to listen to the group as they endeavoured to record just exactly what did happen the week before.

We also read together, for instance, we enjoyed My Place in Space – a very beautiful, yet funny, clever, and factual book about space.

After this stage of the activity much of the work had to be teacher-directed in how to go about it.

Often what started as an independent assignment developed into a shared activity.

Ra and Sharky put together a co-operative proposal, and so did Aaron and Shayne.

Another interesting aspect was the intense concentration of some of the groups as they worked.

During the briefing sessions, challenging questions would be raised.

For instance, how to provide toilet facilities – several children were able to answer this question from the information they gained from their reading; or what type of food supply was used – this led to a discussion of dehydrated foods; or the continuing, unanswered problem of water.

At another briefing we established a communication routine:

• Say name of person to gain their attention

• Wait 1-2 seconds before relaying the message to allow them to tune in

• Speak clearly and distinctly to allow listener to follow the message.

There was a lot of attention to converting fractions to decimals especially in designing the spaceship.

They decided (by vote) the mural should be the solar system as seen through the black hole.

The arrival of a set of technology and space books from the National Library Service provided a fillip.

Matthew ordered them and catalogued them when they arrived.

Crew members had a number of reading sessions to absorb as much information as possible.

At some of the briefing sessions I put the hard word on them to meet their commitments in their log books, reading, mathematics assignments, and communication studies.

They were continually making discoveries in their reading about the nature of such things as the black hole or the silicon chip.

It became time to establish the shift crews and their functions – Alpha, Beta, and Gamma with their Coordinators, Navigators, Sparks, Medics, Scientists, and Collators.

This was a stimulus to extend the scope of the communication studies.

The shifts embarked on some group research:

• Alpha: Telegrams, telephones, telescopes

• Beta: Video, radio, radio telescopes

• Gamma: Silicon chips, television, radar.

We needed to know the locality of some black holes.

Ged and Nathan got in touch with the Auckland Astronomical Society and information was sent to them.

We found out there was a black hole near Cygnus so we started plotting a course.

The imaginary stories on what our newly found planet would be like were variable in quality – about in line with their varying depth of imagination.

After much discussion at a number of briefing sessions, the control-conference room was mainly based on Aaron and Shayne’s ideas.


This entry was posted in Curriculum and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship Part 1

  1. Ewan says:

    Thank you for this post Kelvin.

    It brought back a lot of memories as it was Dorothy Wharehoka that inspired me to be a teacher.

    In 1989 I was looking for a career change, living in Colville, when someone suggested I should try teaching. I approached Dorothy about the idea and she suggested I come in one day a week and help out, work with the kids and see if I like it.

    Luckily it coincided with this spaceship study she did. I did the scale mural outside of the solar system with them, and help to paint the mural the space ship looked out onto, amongst other things.

    She made me realise how creative and interesting teaching could be.

    This year, after 26 years of teaching (mainly in small rural schools like Colville) I have stepped up (or down) to become a principal. One of my lessons from Dorothy was to seek out principals to work under that I liked; they made the job good or not. And the ones I liked were the ones who let me teach without onerous paperwork, who had the kids learning at the heart, and allowed creativity to flourish.

    That is the sort of principal I am trying to be.

    I contacted Dorothy many years ago to thank her for how she inspired me. At that time she was having a bit of a hard time from her community and appreciated the feedback.

    Thanks again for the memory. I remember you visiting her and writing it at the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.