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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Three Ways to Bring the Classroom to the Community

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 20, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are examples of projects your students have done to improve their community and how (and why) did you encourage them?

Many students may become more engaged in academic work if it’s connected to the world outside of school, and what better connection can there be than to a project making the world a better place?

In today’s post, Rebecca Mieliwocki, Denise Krebs, Gallit Zvi, and Ashley McCall share their experiences. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rebecca and Denise on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

“Real-world problems”

Rebecca Mieliwocki is a teacher on special assignment with the Burbank Unified school district in California, specializing in secondary induction and professional development. A veteran middle school English teacher, Rebecca is also the 2012 California and National Teacher of the Year. She is the author of Adventures on Teacher Leadership (ASCD):

I am obsessed with two things: engaging my students and making sure they work on being good humans. I think the modern classroom is a wonderful place to explore what’s happening in our world and to position our young charges as having the smarts and the skill to tackle some of our biggest challenges. To accomplish this, I began creating experiences in my 7th grade English class called Structured Academic Controversies. Basically, I share a real-world problem with my students and some academic (and standards-based) parameters within which they’d try to solve them. Here are three examples.

The neighborhood streets leading up to our middle school did not have sidewalks. It’s one of those old neighborhoods with lots of lawns and trees but nowhere for anyone to amble safely. Kids were forced to walk to campus on the street, risking life and limb. Each year, at least five students were either hit by cars or nearly hit. Something needed to be done. The city of Burbank had allotted money to add sidewalks and curb cuts for every school in the district which needed them, but naturally, cost overruns meant that they ran out of funds before our school could receive these improvements. When I expressed this reality to my students, they were not just disappointed, they were also angry and they wanted to do something about it.

We commenced to writing letters to the editor, creating display boards with photos of the dangers, and preparing to speak to City Council members at the next meeting. Long story short, my students were successful in persuading the city to allocate the funding to complete the project. My classroom faces the street where they were working, so my students loved seeing the progress each day and felt true ownership over the sidewalks when they were completed. I felt that not only did my students learn about how to advocate using reading, writing, listening, and speaking, they also nurtured their own sense of civic engagement and, I daresay, pride. These are really important qualities to come from a school assignment.

Another project we worked on had to do with censorship. A community member had gone to a school board meeting to complain that some of our core literature selections were not appropriate for middle school children, specifically The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, a text my students and I really dug our teeth into. This parent took issues with most of the Steinbeck taught in our district, from Of Mice and Men to Grapes of Wrath, as being morally and ethically suspect. I brought the challenge to my students. I told them that if we could mount a convincing argument for saving Steinbeck, we could keep his titles on our core literature list. My students set about creating reader guides and life-lesson booklets explaining how Steinbeck’s works actually advocate leading a MORE productive, moral life despite the challenges fate brings up. They created presentations, they made library displays, they surveyed students from 6-12th grades, and even held a cover-design contest to drum up more interest in Steinbeck’s other novels. They also wrote letters to both the newspaper and the school board. My students made compelling arguments in favor of this author and learned to face challenges head-on with civility, intelligence, and passion.

Finally, one of my favorite challenges had to do with our student store. Our campus is old, and the student store was not just in disrepair, it didn’t actually sell very much that our students wished to buy. Dwindling sales and a lack of safe, usable space, meant that this little outpost was slated for destruction. Each morning, our daily video bulletin announces the news of the school, and when this news was shared, the outcry from my students was swift and almost amusing. They had taken on the City Council, the school board, and, by golly, saving our student store was going to be a piece of cake. They knew how to do this.

As soon as my first student said, “We can’t let that happen,” my class took on a mind and life of its own. Kids grouped up into teams: physical building, sales ideas, inventory, public relations and began to solve the problems that a failing student store presented. These 12-year-olds sketched new designs for the exterior and interior of the shed along with the cost estimations for the redesign. They invented new services and products the student store could sell based on surveys they gave their peers. Another team developed signage, ads, and coupons that would entice students to visit the store more often. The best idea involved moving the lunchtime sports-equipment checkout to the student store, right next to the cold case full of sparkling Gatorade. Sweaty athletes = Increased Gatorade sales. We made our pitch to ASB (Associated Study Body), the administration, and the site council, and sure enough, the store was saved.

The end result of these kinds of projects being done in class are that they foster a spirit of unity among the class; they force students to use their skills to be heard, seen, and considered; and they allow kids to face challenges together, creating a sense of indomitable perseverance that serves them well their entire lives. When we think about our role as teachers, whatever the subject, can you think of anything we might do that’s more important that this?

Genius hour

Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs) and Gallit Zvi (@gallit_z) are co-moderators of the Twitter chat group #GeniusHour. Denise works in Bahrain, teaching English to grade 5 students in a bilingual Arabic-English school. Gallit is a vice principal and STEAM teacher in Surrey, British Columbia:

Genius Hour is a form of passion-based learning, as such we believe Genius Hour is a perfect time to practice empathy, compassion, and good citizenship. We are proud of our students when they scale up Genius Hour (to use Angela Maiers’ words), when students choose projects that improve the community. Young people are enthusiastic workers and want to change the world, starting with their schools and communities.

To encourage them to scale up their projects, we ask our students to consider these questions when they are in the midst of preparing their inquiry questions and choosing a project.

  • What matters to you?

  • What breaks your heart about it? Things that have been important to our students in the past: racism, loneliness, global climate change, pollution, endangered animals, gun violence, drug abuse, suicide, poverty, disease, mental health, illiteracy, injustice, intolerance, access to clean water, bullying, etc.

  • What else breaks your heart?

  • What can you do about it?

Some of the amazing projects our students have created or ones we have heard about from others:

  • Earning money for a cause - Students have issues that are dear to their hearts—Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Amnesty International, or a family going through cancer treatment, to name a few. Students do creative passion projects to earn money for one of these heart matters—some girls who loved knitting made scarves and sold them, cross country students hosted a 5K in the community, a small class gathered donations and held a yard sale, including putting some more valuable items on eBay; others have held a car wash, bake sale, and softball tournament. These were all Genius Hour projects that helped others financially.

  • Creating value and meeting needs - Students created a playground-sized chess set for students to play during recess. Someone designed and coordinated a share table for the lunchroom where students can donate wrapped food that they don’t need, and those who are still hungry are welcome to take what they need. Student tutors helped others during recess who needed their expertise. Students did projects that promote happiness—a “honk if you love someone” event before school and “take what you need” posters. Others who loved baking and cooking made a week’s worth of meals for a classmate who experienced a parent’s death. These Genius Hour projects have made our communities kinder and gentler.

  • Repairs and clean up - Students have served as IT helpers, updating all the Chromebooks and troubleshooting for other teachers. Another collected broken game consoles and repaired them, giving the ones he could repair to kids who didn’t have their own. An aspiring auto mechanic talked the school secretary into letting him change the oil in her car (a local father in the business inspected his work). Some students did random acts of kindness around the school, like washing all the windshields in the parking lot. One year, some students collected trash along a nature trail in our community. These Genius Hour projects show the value of hard work, environmental care, and wise use of resources.

  • Awareness campaigns - We learned this type of Genius Hour project from our friend, Hugh McDonald, grade 7 teacher in Surrey, British Columbia. Students learn about causes they are passionate about and then report to their peers about these causes through speeches, documentaries, and more. Examples of awareness campaigns include the SPCA animal shelter, opioid abuse, B.C. Children’s Hospital, and anti-racism work. These Genius Hour projects become public-service announcements educating others about important issues.

These and similar projects are accomplished every week around the world. Students love and want to make a difference. Through contribution, students are connecting to each other as well as the greater community and world at large. Genius Hour is the perfect time for students to act upon their passions and make a difference in the world. They are the future change-makers. Ask the Genius Hour teachers you know about some of the amazing projects their students do.

Organizing around the census

Ashley McCall is a 3rd grade English/language arts educator at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards, in Chicago, where she serves as a teacher representative on the local school council. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna and a member of the Teach Plus Board:

“Teamwork makes the dreamwork” is more than a pithy phrase. It’s what makes collaborative learning and student-centered project development possible at Chavez. So often when we think and speak about student civic engagement, our floor begins at the middle school level. We reserve visions for large-scale community impact for tweens and teenagers and rely on picture books to meet the needs and interests of our elementary students. We do these students an injustice when we decide, without their input, what content they are ready for and the scale of the impact they can have. Instead, we must think of ourselves as facilitators of developmentally appropriate content that responds to and is driven by student need, experience, and vision. That’s where our culminating projects come in.

For the past three years, my collaborating teacher, Lindsay Singer (@ChavezSinger), and I have closed the year with two synchronous units: Activism (social studies) and Social Justice Book Clubs (reading). Next door in Room 307, Lindsay takes students on a journey that traces social movements from past to present. Students define terms, ask and answer clarifying questions, have critical conversation about past and present narratives, investigate current issues, and select an issue they think is pressing and want to act on. Prior to choosing this issue, students use what they know about reading and understanding fiction and nonfiction texts to explore social issues in book clubs with me in Room 306. We explore individual and collective narratives, perspectives (present and absent), power and power shifts, author’s purpose, and the choices authors of all kinds make to tell a story. Equipped with these tools, students design, allocate roles for, and lead a public action.

During the 2017-18 school year, students were provoked by the issue of world education and the challenge so many students their age, especially girls, face when seeking schooling. Students led teach-ins for their K-5 peers, wrote speeches and other informational and persuasive texts, raised funds for UNICEF’s School-in-a-Box program, and held a schoolwide “Rally for Education.” Last year, after reading the top 50 local news headlines about the Back of the Yards neighborhood where our school is located and where most of them live, students decided they wanted to tell a fuller narrative of their community. They drafted poems, essays, interviews, opinion columns, informational articles, book reviews, and more and eventually published them in a self-titled bilingual magazine called “Say it Loud / Dilo Fuerte”. To celebrate publication, students held a publishing presentation for the entire school and welcomed families and community members, including 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor. Students’ work was also featured in South Side Weekly, Chicago Unheard, and on The JAM Morning Show.

This year, after evaluating assets and needs within their community, students learned about the census as one lever for addressing those needs and strengthening those assets. Leveraging what they learned about the community from neighbors, community organizations, and peers, students designed infographics and advertisements, wrote and starred in commercials, authored persuasive speeches and informational essays, created art, and crafted tweets to promote census participation. On Wednesday, June 17, students presented their work during a live webinar with 100+ attendees called Everyone Counts / Todos Cuentan. During the Q&A session of the event, students were quoted, saying, “I would do this again because I liked working with my friends,” “I will remember this when I am old enough to take the census,” and “Everyone should take the census because it’s important for our community, and we have to do what it takes to make our community better”.

It never fails that when we share the amazing work our students do, people are in disbelief about their age. Why? Because we still ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” instead of, “What change do you want to see right now?” Lindsay and I work to integrate real-world, project-based learning into our classrooms year round because we believe that social justice, equity, activism, change, and community organizing aren’t unit-bound vocabulary terms. They are pillars for co-existing and co-creating a better world with your neighbor. The time and age for that is always now and today-years-old. Our teamwork is about making our students’ dreams work each and every day.

Thanks to Rebecca, Denise, Gallit, and Ashley for their contributions!

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