We’ve turned the classroom into a spaceship Part 2

It was interesting to listen and watch the reactions of the group members when choices had to be made from their own submissions.

By trial, error, and much discussion we established a lay-out for the spaceship.

This stage of the process was very demanding.

One of the groups was having considerable difficulty in organising as a group because of personality conflicts.

As I had decided to step in only as a last resort, I mainly watched.

All the crew members needed a lot of help in pursuing their tasks.

I can remember in a typical session having to work with Charlotte on her word processing skills; with Cathy and Sharky on locating resources for the radio telescope; and Aaron in interpreting data on the silicon chip, and so on.

Desks and tables were re-arranged to form the basic spaceship design.

It was a tiring time, compounded by the children becoming rather unsettled at seeing their physical surroundings being disturbed.

My response to a tiring day was to make the next day’s briefing session short, snappy, and purposeful.

The crew always looked taken aback after viewing the Voyager videos and other space videos. Each viewing brought more information – indeed, rather too much. But how the videos fired their imaginations!

Then came the time for the various specialists to gather in their compartments to begin designing, constructing, and gathering the equipment necessary to carry out their tasks.

I stressed the need for them to be very thorough in this aspect of the spaceship’s construction.

There was a resurgence of interest at this stage.

I remember one particularly interesting briefing session when we discussed red dwarf stars, white dwarf stars, interstellar space, globules, galaxies, and universes. It all came tumbling out of the children. The idea of the comparative distances transfixed them.

There was still the requirement at briefing sessions to discuss with the crew the importance of working co-operatively in all aspects of the construction.

We would occasionally devote an entire day to construction. There was, for instance, a particular need to push ahead with the console units in each area of the spaceship.

The Sci group worked more cohesively than the others. However, they had the advantage of having a smaller area to equip.

The Medic group was having difficulties. There is a definite gender antagonism evident despite Beta Medic’s own personal will to get on with the job.

There were times when we all felt very much in need of a break from cardboard, glue, and paints.

It was quite a moment when we had the viewing window in place. That was thanks to Matthew, Shayne, and Sharky.

The introduction of binary numbers to the s. 4 group (when the older children were at manual) was an exciting experience. They had little difficulty with the concept.

Swiftly, Ged, Nathan, and Sam had established the notion of the pattern repeating and were racing ahead.

Ra did his usual, ‘Oh, I know all about it’ and wandered off, while Charlotte and Sharky persevered to establish better understanding.

The listening to space music appealed to the children – for some the appeal was profound.

One group was deployed to begin putting up the wires for holding the interior walls.

The spaceship construction put considerable demands on their ability to do such things as measure, understand angles, estimate, and solve mathematical problems.

What a scene of frantic activity some of the days were – painting, gluing, hammering, and sawing!

To increase their typing skills, the Collators had to practise daily.

The Medics slowly, painfully, started to get on with the construction of showers, washing machines, and clothes driers.

The briefing sessions were now mainly about specialist groups reporting progress.

Navs and Co-ords were much occupied with setting up the electronic aspects of the control room.

This required them to rummage through the school science supply to purchase batteries and to bring bits and pieces from home. One child gained materials from a visit to the dump.

The Sparks at one stage felt rather stressed as they were a person short all of one crucial construction week.

Beta Sparks’ spasmodic attention span caused quite a degree of frustration within the group.

On Day 22 (out of a planned 27 days) we made a start on the outside walls of the spaceship.

As the walls went up in the various areas we were able to begin positioning the consoles in their final places.

The main materials – insulation foil and bubble pack had to be carefully measured and cut.

Another group worked on the problem of the doorway in from the air locks.

Sci group at this stage had collected its equipment and busily worked on making its lab operational.

Collators had their compartment looking very organised – labels everywhere and a carefully ordered filing system on display.

Several crew members were feeling rather low because they feared they wouldn’t be ready in time for public inspection on Pet Day.

There was a confrontation, caused by envy, over who had batteries and who hadn’t. Time to lay off them for a bit.

Beta Nav and Co-ord worked on the door frame for the air lock.

Gamma and Beta Medics had at last solved the problem of the pantry construction.

Meanwhile Alpha Nav was busy with the shower cubicle.

Alpha Sparks completed the computer.

The other Navs and Co-ords completed, as far as possible, the control panel. This was necessary as the glazing for the viewing window needed to be filled.

Alpha and Beta Scis made a large poster about the spaceship for parental guidance on Pet Day.

Gamma Sci and Beta Coll helped to put the computer into the Collators’ room.

Alpha and Gamma Coll worked on the sleeping quarters.

We decided not to carry on with the geodesic dome as the construction problems became too much for us to handle.

From the way the crew worked, there was no doubt that the ability to follow instructions, whether written or spoken, had greatly improved.

By Day 26 we all had wall displays in place and mission statements for all sections.

Beta Medic came back with first aid supplies from the district nurse.

The turning on of the control panel flashing lights was a great moment. Our morale soared.

The crew was taken out of the spaceship while Ewan and Mr Mack put the ceiling of the control room into place.

A sense of quiet excitement pervaded the groups as the big day drew near.

We assembled for our last pre-flight briefing. 

There was still much to do:

• The ceiling of the air lock had to be finished

• All tape-decks, earphones, and walkie-talkies checked

• Sleeping quarters tidied up

• Pantry stacked

• Personal tote trays ordered

• Shared room set up to make writing materials readily available

• Galley area fully cleared

• All areas checked for labelling.

It was all hands on deck.

And when it seemed finished, we sat down together exhausted and quietly discussed crew responsibilities.

A lovely sense of togetherness.

A swim, a video, and we were ready. 

Network’s visit to the spaceship came three weeks later. By that time the children were comfortable and assured in the routines they followed.

After each shift of 80 minutes was completed, children would do other tasks – some related to the space project, others to regular school work.

The children and teacher went about what was expected of them in an unselfconscious way – there was a job to be done, challenges to be met. All involved needed to concentrate on what they were doing – they needed to concentrate to complete the job, meet the challenges.

For instance, consider the walkie-talkie conversation Network encountered when he first entered the spaceship.

The following is how it was conveyed to the Gamma Collator and recorded on the computer.


22.20 hours 66Ox1O99 we are approximately R-18.

Alpha Sparks and Co-ord repairing viewing screen.

Thirty minutes from black hole.

Sci prepared to write data on journey through the black hole.

Countdown in seconds.

We are rumbling, switching to emergency power.

We have some damage in the lab.

Medic treating Collator Beta for a severe cut about the eye.

We are now 13 minutes into the black hole, there is no ship disintegration but we have vibration and rocking. We are being sucked.

A new speed, R+20×1099. We are not experiencing any problems in the buffer zones.

01.00 hours, Sparks received electric shock and is now unconscious receiving medical attention from Gamma


We are now two hours into the black hole.


Injury to Sci. Broken collar bone.

Nav has observed debris on video scan.

Beta Collator and Beta Sparks repairing damage to radio equipment following Gamma Sparks’ injury.

03.00 hours Earth to Voyager Ill.

We are proud you have made it through the black hole.

Nav reports green debris again. Sci is identifying.

Identified as plastic.

Ship continuing to be sucked at a steady rate. There is no panic with the crew.

Still have vibrating and tumbling but all crew strapped securely.

05.00 hours Beta Nav copying history for Mr Smythe.

05.30 hours visitors leaving ship.

Farewell message: Congratulations on a job well done.

Ship now on automatic.


Network rang Dorothy two weeks after the visit.

Yes we took it down yesterday. They are grieving.

To counter this feeling we had a party – a very quiet one I must say. But it provided a sense of occasion and helped them to get over their feeling of loss.

Before we took it down, we asked the junior room in, and involved those children in a fully operational flight.

It was quite an experience. A kind of celebration.

The room looks so bare without the space trappings.

Network asked about the responses of some particular children.

The one who was great on the practical side, but found it difficult to work with his imagination, is quiet, very quiet. He is still absorbing an experience that has changed his way of thinking.

The two who fooled around for quite a while? Well, if the practical one is quiet, these two are absolutely still.

They can hardly believe that school could offer something so absorbing.

The whole winding down had to be handled sensitively.

Thanks Dorothy, and please give my regards to the children.

And that was that.

Network asks: What is there in this for teachers?

Is it just a description of something that very few teachers could or would aspire to?

Does its occurrence in a small country school mean it has little significance for teachers in larger schools?

Is the conservative educational thinking sweeping the country in the wake of Picot likely to be too much for such imaginative initiatives?

Network says there is something in this for all teachers and all kinds of schools. As for the conservative educational trends – what better time for primary teachers to act decisively in the interests of their professionalism and the children they teach.

However, it is the principles that should be responded to, not the details or scope.

The principles are:

• The need for concentration and sincerity of purpose by all those involved

• The need for a considerable amount of information to be gained so that the dramatic involvement can be credibly and validly sustained

• The need for much child-centred initiative and co-operative planning and action

• The need to integrate social and academic learnings

• The need for ample time.

The scale of this project, however, shouldn’t be seen as a standard. For instance, a two week planning and construction period, and a two week functioning period might be more practicable in most instances.

While the atmospheres of small country schools do, indeed, lend themselves to such sustained imaginative teaching and learning – any school can make a good fist of such a project. Teachers should take their school circumstances into account and start from there.

A great range of themes should be considered, for instance, a hospital, a fire station, a ship, an aeroplane, a police station.

Teachers should also consider other kinds of themes, say from literature, for instance, Winnie the Pooh, Treasure Island, or Alice in Wonderland.

Or dilemma situations, for instance, being lost in the bush and search and rescue, being involved in an earthquake, or cast up on an island.

Or historical situations – for instance, Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand, or the semi-fictional narrative from a Roderick Finlayson bulletin (for instance, The Coming of the Musket).

The importance of teachers tailoring the idea to make it appropriate to the children, to themselves, and to the overall school circumstance is stressed.

There are two key requirements for successful sustained dramatic involvement: The gaining by the children of information on the theme concerned; and an unremitting insistence on concentration and sincerity while participating.

However, there is also a need by teachers to develop a sensible anticipation of children’s responses.

All will not be sweetness and light throughout.

The unimaginative children will feel threatened and seek to stay in the immediate and practical; the perfectionists will be reluctant to extend themselves; the emotionally cramped will feel self-conscious and play it up; chauvinists will resent the initiatives of the girls and put them down; the isolates will flit; and those with a dour view of life will be wet blankets. Teachers must prepare themselves for such behaviours. The attitudinal and cognitive challenge of these situations, their length of time, and their relative informality increase the likelihood that such behavioural dispositions, if they are within the children, will surface.

That, however, is a great part of the value of such projects. These behaviours occur but the learning experience is often more sustained than the children’s ability to sustain them.

Such projects, of course, do more than counter negative capacities, they extend children’s positive ones. There are remarkable opportunities for children to initiate, lead, follow, co-operate, make decisions, learn to cope with complexity, work to schedule, organise, improvise, solve problems, enjoy a sense of togetherness, display imagination, and learn to cope with disappointment.

In the light of the possibility of these kinds of learning it might seem anti-climactic to refer to cognitive learning. It is important, however, that this is given very close attention. Cognitive learning should be seen as an essential part of the holistic learning that participation in such projects should provide. The great advantage being, not only the opportunity to develop new cognitive learnings, but also to apply them.

The children should learn, and in a well-based project will learn, much new information from various curriculum areas. They will learn ways of gaining information, presenting information, writing for a variety of purposes, and applying understandings – in the spaceship case especially mathematical and scientific.

There will also be available wonderful sources of ideas for aesthetic expression – art, craft, music, as well as, of course, writing and drama.

And should teachers embark on such a learning journey in darkening educational times like these?

Network says yes. Such projects might not fit the unimaginative, pinched perception of education by the lock-stepping, input, output, data-gatherers, but it is this very lack of fit that makes such projects so much needed, so symbolically important.

New Zealand primary education has been an inspiration to the world – this inspiration will only be maintained by those in primary education acting on the long-established principles of Kiwi primary teaching – not by resorting to failed models of teaching imported from overseas.

There are primary teachers all over New Zealand with the aspirations and abilities of Dorothy Wharehoka. Now is the time, more than ever, to act confidently, and proceed with imaginative teaching.

And when you do, please write to Network – write of your successes, your set-backs. We could then share them with others in a spirit of mutual self-help.

Kelvin Smythe 


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