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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

Ways to ‘Break Down Walls Between Classroom & Community’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 22, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, 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.

Today, Suzie Boss, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, and Jordan Carswell contribute their commentaries.

The next “question-of-the-week” can found at the end of this post.

Project-based learning

Suzie Boss is a PBL advocate, author, and member of the PBLWorks National Faculty. Her latest books are Project Based Teaching and Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 3rd Ed.:

As a project-based learning author and consultant, I encounter teachers all around the world who are designing memorable, meaningful learning experiences for their students. Some of the best examples break down walls between classroom and community, often putting students in the role of local problem solvers.

For example, middle school students in Mumbai, India, tackled local issues such as improving access to clean drinking water and reducing traffic noise in the neighborhood around their school. In the process, they learned to apply the design thinking process to understand issues from multiple perspectives. To test prototypes of various solutions, they collaborated with nonprofit organizations working to address the same issues. At the end of the project, students reflected on the impact of their efforts—not only what they learned but whether they had made a real difference.

Excellent examples of projects with strong community connections in the U.S. are documented on the Iowa BIG site. This innovative high school program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, engages students in high-interest projects that have community partners (such as local businesses, government agencies, or nonprofits). In recent projects—all aligned to academic standards—students have been mapping local watersheds, integrating dance therapy into the special education curriculum, and educating youths about political action. Chances are, you can find similar issues—and similarly willing partners—in your community.

In the Bronx, elementary students are learning about plant biology and much more by growing food for their community. Through a project called the Green Bronx Machine founded by award-winning educator Stephen Ritz, students apply their learning to improve the health of their families and neighbors. That’s especially important in a community with poor access to fresh, affordable food and high rates of diabetes and heart disease. Their projects align naturally with learning goals in science, math, literacy, and more. As the Green Bronx Machine expands to engage more schools around the world, Bronx students are also learning what it means to be global citizens.

Learning to think globally and act locally helps to build students’ muscle as problem solvers. They may not be able to solve the world’s biggest challenges—such as those defined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—but they can tackle right-sized projects that relate to these global issues.

That’s the case for students learning about climate science with California teacher Rebecca Newburn. She wants her students to not only understand the science of climate change but consider actions they and their families can take. To inspire other teachers, she shares a variety of project ideas on her website, including a grade 6 project called “Drawdown: Climate Action Now!”

You can find more examples of projects that accomplish “glocal” goals (global issues, local actions) by following the hashtag #teachsdgs.

Community-service projects

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a national-board-certified teacher and 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified school district Teacher of the Year. Sarah currently teaches 5th grade in Rancho Cordova, Calif., and serves on the Washington Unified school district board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children—a 3rd grader and kindergartner:

The first assignment I design for my 5th graders each year is to research ideas for a community-service project. I deliberately leave the initial directions open-ended:

  • Research a community-service project you feel the class should take on.
  • What problem would be solved? Provide brief background. Who or what are we helping?
  • How do we go about completing this project? Will it cost money? Will we need transportation?

After creating their own rough proposals, students share their proposals with the class, and all ideas are posted to the board. We then group similar proposals, and students self-select into teams. They may stay in the team connected to their initial proposal or they may move to a new group which interests them. Sometimes a category will be left with no students, and that’s OK, too; I tell students they might want to take on these projects outside of class. If groups are overly large, I counsel students to break into smaller teams to tackle different aspects of the projects.

I see my part in the process as a facilitator and I approach this role with questions and gentle nudging, ensuring the projects stay in the hands of students.

Once in community-service teams, students work together to dig deeper into their goals, determining how the goals will be completed, and agree upon timelines. This is often when I encourage students to make phone calls to organizations or individuals so their service projects are meeting real needs. For many students, this is their first time making a phone call like this, and to prepare, they write a script, practice with their peers, and make the calls from the classroom with me close by. If communicating through email, the emails need to be peer reviewed and then sent to me. I send them on behalf of the students to facilitate their communication with outside entities.

The students also learn how to complete fundraising request forms and schedule meetings with the principal to get projects approved. To adhere to the rules prohibiting selling treats on campus, students have organized lemonade and treat sales at the nearby park with the help of their families.

Although each project is different, structure is fluid, and control over the project is firmly in the hands of the students. Even if it turns out that their ideas replicate something already planned in the community, they can feel intense satisfaction knowing they’re on the same page as local organizations, volunteers, and community leaders. For instance, one team wanted to replace a broken drinking fountain with a water-bottle filling station. I first encouraged them to contact the school district maintenance department to see if there was a process in place for such requests. In response to this email inquiry, they learned the district was working to fix the drinking fountain and already had plans to add a water-bottle refill station. After some big smiles and a feeling of satisfaction, the team dismantled, and students joined other teams in a support role.

Over the years, my students have raised money for various nonprofits; organized schoolwide supply drives for local animal and homeless shelters; compiled letters for students in the hospital, veterans, and the elderly; purchased livestock for communities in Africa; organized playground cleanups; solicited donations for our school garden from local businesses; and even spent a month “fluttering” the neighborhood with decorative dragonflies to raise funds and awareness for the organization Unravel Pediatric Cancer.

The projects take on a life of their own, with students learning a plethora of skills across disciplines—even including being interviewed by local media!

Upon completion of each project, I have incorporated a reflection piece. Some teams are not as successful as others, and this is a time to reflect on why and what steps could be done differently in the future. I don’t give a formal grade, since students’ own sense of accomplishment is the goal. This project is meant to help cultivate a new generation of citizens and foster an intrinsic desire to better the community around them. Not only do the projects strengthen and benefit the recipients, but my students learn empathy and leadership skills in the process. Together they solve problems, work toward the greater good, connect local concerns with global issues, and gain awareness of others. I consider that a win and better than any grade I could give.

“Innovation with a purpose”

Jordan Carswell is program director of IDEAStudio, the maker space at West Houston Institute, an innovation of Houston Community College. Connect with Jordan on Twitter @jordancarswell:

In my work as program director of IDEAStudio, a leading-edge maker space at the West Houston Institute at Houston Community College, one of my primary goals is to create an invigorating learning environment that teaches students to become innovators, designers, and entrepreneurs in an authentic, real-world context. IDEAStudio is accessed not only by college students and faculty but also by other groups, including 12th graders at the neighboring Alief Early College High School. Each year, a cohort of dual-credit seniors participates in our flagship IDEAS Academy program. We begin by using EdgeMakers‘ “Creativity & Innovation” course to introduce them to the initial concepts and terminology for innovation and learn how to combine creativity with purpose. Then, as part of our ongoing collaboration with the Houston Mayor’s Office of Innovation, students apply these skills and mindsets to various challenges in the community and beyond. Here are a few examples:

  • Food security: After interviewing community stakeholders, subject-matter experts, and local entrepreneurs last spring, students developed various projects that addressed the four pillars of food security: access, availability, utilization, and sustainability. After discovering that food banks are not always open at times residents need access, one group of students created the concept of an online food bank to connect those in need to local food pantries. Another group of students developed a customized A-frame hydroponics system to promote the development of community food sources in urban environments. Check out this video of students discussing these projects and others at our community showcase.

  • SDGs: Last fall, students delved into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and created concepts such as a device that attaches to cars to help reduce car emissions by extracting water and carbon, keeping it from entering the earth’s atmosphere, and allowing for future reuse. Another group explored the dangers our human-made environment poses to wildlife, and after identifying a particular campus building that was interfering with bird migrations, they implemented Zen curtain vertical design modifications to prevent birds from flying into the glass.

  • 2020 Census: In 2019, students partnered with local government on an effort to engage underrepresented communities in the 2020 Census. They initially created and conducted surveys to uncover attitudes and beliefs about the census and then applied what they learned to the development of a communications plan to engage their peers in their civic responsibility. Then, they designed a prototype for a replicable census-awareness event designed to dispel fears about the census and inspire greater participation. (See this Twitter moment about one of the student-organized events here.) The students’ Census 2020 work continued beyond the school year as several then interned with various city organizations to continue to raise awareness and encourage census participation.

Our recent success with projects at IDEAStudio is emblematic of today’s emerging emphasis on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Creating active and relevant learning environments that directly involve students in tackling important real-world issues is exactly the type of experience they need to develop solution-oriented thinking and prepare them for future community involvement.

Next question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

How do you incorporate movement in your lessons, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Thanks to Suzie, Sarah, and Jordan for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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