Tearing Down the Walls

Today’s Contributor: Courtney Power-Freeman

I am a fifth grade teacher at Sunset Valley Elementary, a two way dual language campus. I am also my Campus Innovation Coach and a Master Blended Learning Teacher, plus a mother of two and a wife of one.

The Fifth Grade Team at Sunset Valley is trying out a new idea for structuring our days with our students, a diverse group language learners, where we tore down walls. Literally.

Historically, Fifth Grade has been fully departmentalized between three teachers. One is the Science teacher, another Math and the final has Language Arts and Social Studies. Students would have equal blocks between each teacher and rotate as a class. However, while attending SXSWEdu, I was inspired to become creative with our time to invest in personalized project based learning. The idea was to create one Fifth Grade class, as opposed to the three separate ones and then have them work on different projects during the day in a large open double classroom. As students were needed to attend small group lessons, or even large whole group lessons, the entire day was open for scheduling. We modeled the vision after Google HQ in Austin, where the students attended a field trip in December. We are calling it Google Junior. The students are the employees and colleagues to each other. The teachers are the managers. We link everything we do back to what it would look like at Google.



Our steps along the way from vision to fruition are as follows. Please note we are continuously reflecting and revising or crafting based on the students.  

Steps for planning out Google Junior

  1. Convince colleagues
    1. While I had the spark and drive, we are still a team and I needed to convince all parties to give it a go. We compromised to trying it out for five weeks after the first round of STAAR and after all the Science Content has been taught. That way we are just pulling small groups for all the reteach.
  2. Figure out best LMS method for the teachers
    1. Two of us are strong in BLEND but not the other. We had to choose which tech tools to use to make it the most user friendly experience, not just for the students but also for the teachers. I have learned that the students will pick up any tool quickly but the teacher has to be comfortable with the tool before experimenting. For our unit we chose Google Classroom and Google Calendar for it’s ease for a teacher to use.
  3. Choose projects and set a deadline
    1. We wanted an Academic Showcase on May 23rd, so we looked into projects where the students have the opportunity to both collaborate and working on an independent final project. We also wanted projects already developed and were interdisciplinary. In the end, students had to work on three projects: a bookclub, an Ozobot coding project, and an Interdisciplinary Project.
  4. Set the students and teachers up for success

What do the kids need to know to be successful?

    1. How to access Google Calendar from the portal
    2. How to add events, invite people, and share calendar
    3. How to see Google Classroom linking to the calendar
    4. Learn Tasks – The students use Tasks to break down what they need to accomplish step by step. They use these tasks to fill in their calendars.
    5. Learn how to fill in a calendar honestly and then follow it. This requires teachers viewing and discussing the students’ calendars with them. We have to see what they say they are working on with what reality looks like.
    6. Learn Keep for reflection – Students reflect daily on a Keep Note, which has been shared with their teachers. They answer what they accomplished today, what held them back, and how can they improve for tomorrow. Reflection and Intention setting is Special Sauce.

What do teachers need to know?

    1. How to invite students to small groups using Calendar
    2. Logistics for planning with other teachers. You want one teacher always on hand as a manager and then that frees up the other two teachers for small groups.
    3. Working together in one room/s. We have to be able to give up space and share flexibly as needed. The classrooms turn into our working spaces and territory is ceded to the workers.
    4. There will be a lot of reflection and revision in the beginning with the team to figure out what is working and how to tackle what is not working.
    5. Be flexible and vulnerable. The space and work does not look traditional and could feel uncomfortable for many teachers. It’s okay to not have perfection and for it to be messy. It took the students a few days to settle down into the routine and we had to adjust quite a bit for individual students. It feel discomfort daily but magically survive.

After setting up, tweaking, changing, and loving Google Junior for three weeks, I can say that I hope we choose to set up our classes in a similar manner next year. I see a dramatic drop in classroom management issues and a rise in confidence and work product from many students. Some students need to have their calendars set for them and others have taken off and are soaring on their own. Once we had the STAAR results, we were easily able to adjust calendars to fit in more small groups, without disrupting anyone’s schedule. We’ve seen a rise in collaboration and independence inside the classroom but also at Specials. In all, this experiment has been a success!



  1. Holy cow! This is amazing. I want to find some collapsible walls on my campus. It would be so exciting to do something like this with my team of Algebra 1 teachers. Our students could really benefit from a model so dedicated to small group instruction. Thank you for sharing and taking big, scary leaps of faith in the name innovating with our students.

  2. I had the privilege of visiting Courtney’s room during this time. The students were so engaged and flowed easily between work spaces and tasks. It was really quite inspiring and still has me thinking about classrooms for which I may be responsible in the future. Thank you for opening your classroom to me and thank you for sharing your experience here.

  3. I’m sorry… WHAT?! This is incredible!! The skills they students are learning are so much more than the content expected of 5th graders, their middle school teachers are going to me amazed by their confidence and independence. Incredible work!!

  4. This is so awesome! I wonder how you could make something like this work throughout the year?

  5. This is inspiring! I feel like this could be a school-year thing… like collaboration fridays or something. Love this!

  6. this has given voice and demonstration to what I have been thinking about for a long time. School needs to look different than it does today. School hasn’t changed in a hundred years!

  7. Great article, very inspiring. As a resource teacher, how are individual student needs addressed in this setting?

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