It’s time for everyone to go back to school, even the 5th graders from my dissertation study at Lanley Elementary. Except this time I won’t be with them. I am staying home today (and 3 days a week this entire semester) to write about them. I have a little under 4 months to write their story; I officially applied for graduation last week.

The largest part of their story was the last few days before winter break. These days were some of the most rewarding of my entire career, showing me that the type of social justice oriented, authentic curriculum can be beneficial for the teachers as well as the students. First of all, the students spent time at the beginning of our final week together deciding to donate their money to the Barnabas House. We had a great discussion about where to donate where they had to analyze the information from our guest speakers, make a decision (backed with evidence) about why their profits should go to a certain place. (Hello Common Core Standards!!) In the end, the students decided on the Barnabas House. The Barnabas House is raising money to build a huge facility for homeless youth in Holland. I think this organization appealed to the 5th graders because of Michelle, their director. She was great with the kids, telling them personal stories of children she knew that didn’t have homes. Without me prompting her, she just naturally talked to them like colleagues. Like she would anyone else who had taken an interest in helping children. She also gave them choice. When they asked her what their money would help do, she told them that they could personalize their donation and have their money go toward anything that they thought a house would need. This lead to another discussion about what they could do with the money. In the end, I think the students one of the things they wanted to donate was a fish tank, so the homeless youth could have pets to take care of and be able to watch the calming water. How amazing is that?

The very last day before break the school had a Christmas program. We decided that right before the program, the students would present the donation to the Barnabas House and tell the parents what they’ve been up to. The few days before, a few students took on the job of writing a script to read and then the afternoon before break the students practiced what they would say. We also tie-dyed T-shirts (blue of course) as our “uniform” for raising awareness of child abuse. They wanted to make a “big check”, so we did that as well. The last day before break was pretty much entirely planned by the students and guided by us, and they loved it. The other 5th grade had a pizza party and cupcakes and none of our students complained that we didn’t have a “party.” We were too busy having fun learning.

In the end, the students made about $650 profit, which is an insane amount of money from selling the little things they did. This was after they paid back their loans to me. The “Whitlock Store” had collected about $150 in costs from them buying supplies, so I agreed to donate that as well (after all, that was Whitlock Store profit–I can be a social business too!). All in all, we had $800 to give to the Barnabas House. When the students all got up in front of the parents to tell them what they did, and when Tommy read the total amount, the entire audience cheered and clapped. Neither the students or I expected this reaction–the looks on their faces were priceless.

The Barnabas House is buying a fish tank (among other things) with the money, and all the students’ names are going on a plaque by the tank (Michelle is going to make sure of this). But, more importantly, the students now have “real proof” that they are helping a need in the community. After interviewing them for the post-data, I could tell they now have a broader understanding of human rights and human rights issues both here and around the world. If they haven’t completely transformed into human rights activists by the end of the semester, I can say at least One Hen opened the door for the conversation. And, we opened the door for them at age 10, instead of like 18 or 20 when most of us go to college or travel and realize there is a world bigger than us. The students are also planning to help with the Barnabas Winter Silent Auction and even with construction in the spring. They have found their “cause” and passion.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the ISD in our county has  888 students registered as homeless. Of that number, 127 are listed as unaccompanied. A student self-report survey in 2011 showed that 113  8th, 10th and 12th graders had no place to sleep at least once this school year in our community.

These are obviously not national statistics, they are right where I live. And a group of 5th graders did something this year to alleviate this problem. Just that is pretty amazing.

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