With build weeks, we've built in flexible time for field trips, immersive projects, interdisciplinary work, and community building.

Proof School has an unusual school calendar. Between six-week-long "blocks" filled with academic classes, we have a week-long "build week." These weeks give us the time and flexibility to dive into activities that are a core part of who we are but that don't fit neatly into our regular school schedule.

Here we describe our October build week--the first build week of the school year--to offer a sense of how this time is used.

Neighborhood excursions

Middle school students devoted their week to exploring San Francisco neighborhoods. We’re lucky to be located in a city that is full of history, culture, and personality!

During the Flex Fridays preceding Build Week, our 6th-8th grade students worked with faculty in small groups to plan out tours of Mission Bay/Dogpatch, the Mission, the Yerba Buena Cove shoreline, and Nob Hill. Students then reorganized into new groups, with every pair of students serving as guides for a half-day neighborhood excursion for their classmates during Build Week.

A hand-drawn map for the Mission Bay/Dogpatch tour

A hand-drawn map for the Mission Bay/Dogpatch tour

Over the course of their time at Proof School, students become very familiar with San Francisco. Along the way, they learn to navigate new places, explore with curiosity, and see the world around us with compassion. (And, they consume a few tacos and stop at a few playgrounds along the way.)

Stopping in Union Square

Stopping in Union Square

Newton’s cradle

Build weeks are also used to dive into subject-based projects that complement students' academic classes. In Block 1, our high school physics students explored the science behind Newton’s cradle and asked questions we could test with experiments: What happens if two balls are glued together? If one ball is heavier? If the balls are bouncy?

Inspired by these student-driven questions, physics students built two customizable Newton’s cradles, in which users can hang balls with different sizes, weights, and elasticity. They brainstormed dimensions so the strings wouldn’t break and so their planned experiments would offer accurate data. Then they built the cradles from scratch and machined each part individually, using PVC pipes, threaded support rods, and epoxy glue.

Using high-speed photography, students captured the behavior of the Newton’s cradle in various configurations and analyzed the data to understand the physics behind it all. The results are mesmerizing. These contraptions will serve us in our future investigations of energy conservation, static equilibrium, and oscillations.

Academic planning and advising

Our high school students regularly take part in academic planning and advising activities from 9th-12th grades, in a four-year arc that ranges from big questions about long-term aspirations down to detailed plans for standardized testing. During this Build Week, we spent time with our high school students on different parts of this advising program.

We framed this week’s discussions and advising in terms of who--not what--our students want to be. We asked questions like:

  1. What is most important to them now?
  2. How have they imagined their future lives?
  3. How do the coming years relate to their long-term goals?

It’s natural to get caught up in day-to-day deadlines and concerns; our goal was to help students take a step back and be conscientious about their bigger picture as they tackle the day-to-day.

With this context in mind, we dove into some of the academic planning topics that students need to be proactive about during high school, such as standardized testing, identifying best-fit colleges, and applying to college. It’s impossible to comprehensively cover each of these topics; instead, we aimed to provide an overview, empower students to find the information most relevant to them, and help students interpret and digest the information in a healthy and thoughtful way.

Finally, as part of this week, we encouraged students to communicate with their parents about their parents’ own experiences and hopes and dreams for them. Our first-year high school students exchanged letters with their parents on this topic. Our second-year high school students learned about interviewing from a teacher with a background in qualitative research. Drawing inspiration from StoryCorps, these students conducted audio-recorded interviews with each other and then with their parents. We were delighted to hear from students and parents alike that this interview assignment catalyzed meaningful conversations!

In addition to these activities for the high school students, the whole school took time to write reflections on Block 1; archive exemplary work; set goals for Block 2; and discuss how we form new habits, based on Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit.

Collaborative art

With an eye toward collaboration, the whole school worked on a single art project this week. Working in small groups, for one to two hours at a time, students transformed a wild idea into reality. By the end of the ten hours, we had drawn, cut, and taped a life-sized inflatable elephant.

The 9th graders kicked off the project by taking a sewing pattern and scaling it up, using a grid method. They drew grids on giant pieces of paper, and made almost the entire pattern for us. Then came the middle school groups: the three groups industriously cut the pattern out of plastic and began to tape it together. They also had to finish the biggest pattern piece: the elephant body. The 10th and 11th graders did most of the taping, teaming up in pairs to tackle seams. By the last morning of build week, only the ears were left for a few enthusiastic volunteers.

The kids hovered nervously when we inflated it, worried that it was popping or wouldn’t stand up. Our test run worked great, and with a few minor patches and a small stand, Epsilon the Elephant was ready to stand on her own!

The elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room.

Social and Emotional Learning

To kick off our Block Two social and emotional learning focus of "Relating to Self," students of all grade levels participated in a workshop on emotional granularity: the ability to experience finely-tuned emotions and identify them in a precise and nuanced way (feeling grief or frustration, for example, rather than a general sense of badness).

Each group reviewed a bank of vocabulary words related to emotions (e.g., sullen, serene, exasperated) and worked together to brainstorm and add additional words to describe a variety of emotional states. Students then worked individually to create "emotion maps," in which they chose an emotion they had experienced in the past and mapped out aspects of what that emotion has felt like (how they’ve experienced it, bodily and mentally), various things that have triggered that emotion in them, and the different responses they have had to the feeling. Students got creative and colorful with their maps, with some relying more on written descriptions while others drew pictures.

Students also considered scenarios in which a person might feel a mix of potentially contradictory emotions, and they discussed times in their own lives when they experienced multiple feelings in response to the same event. For homework, students are keeping an “emotions journal,” in which they’ll write down, on a few occasions, what they’re feeling at a particular moment, using as specific language as possible.

Our next SEL workshops will focus on how we respond to our own emotions after we’ve identified them, and on how we react to difficult outside events that are out of our control.

… and more

Build Week typically includes an assortment of other activities, and this week was no exception. High-school students participated in a puzzle hunt that led them to Japantown and a tasty treat; middle-school students learned new games with one of our math teachers; our oldest students devoted an afternoon to chemistry; middle school students participated in a collaborative round of Math Madness; and we ended the week by inflating the elephant and unveiling the current floor plans for our new home. All in all, it was a busy and exciting week!

-- Proof School Faculty