Reflections on a Driving Question by Brent Sclafani

Brent and his students at the Champlain Elementary School work on developing service-learning projec
Brent reflects on the challenges of keeping an on-going program relevant and authentic for students from year to year.

Reflections on a Driving Question

by Brent Sclafani

Brent is a fourth/fifth grade teacher at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont involved in the Sustainable Schools Project coordinated by Shelburne Farms. He reflects on the challenges of keeping an ongoing program relevant and authentic for students from year to year. Brent also works with 3 otherChamplain teachers, Anne Felber, Pat FitzGerald and Colleen Cowel who all have fourth/fifth grade classrooms and together they have planned and implemented the sustainability curriculum during these last 3 years. He wrote this reflection during a reflective writing retreat sponsored by Shelburne Farms.

All I’m trying to do is teach kids that the fate of the earth is in their hands and they can actually do something about it. This is no small task; especially on those days when shaken by the morning headlines, it is difficult to maintain my own sense of hope. I am fortunate to live in a place where people are trying to make our city, as our Mayor says, “a better place for our kids, our grandkids, other people’s kids and grandkids.” I imagine young children experiencing the power of collective effort and discovering how that effort can make a difference in people’s lives. Will it help them to become empowered adults who, as Martin Luther King preached, reject cynicism and despair? I hope so.

This is the third year that our elementary school in Burlington, Vermont and the fourth/fifth grade team (four 4/5 classes) of which I am a part have been involved with education for sustainability (The Sustainable Schools Project with our partners from Shelburne Farms). Last year the children on our team participated in projects that reflected our efforts to engage them in authentic service-learning experiences.  (Photo: Champlain students meeting with former Burlington Mayor, Peter Clavelle to discuss school lunch programs.)

Three children, concerned about the people who stay at our city’s homeless shelters, reasoned that people are homeless because they don’t have the money to buy a house or pay rent and they don’t have the money because they don’t have a job. “So how can we help them get a job?” they wondered. They were told about the Department of Employment and Training. After getting some information from the department, they called a homeless shelter and asked if they could make a sign telling people where they could go to get help getting a job. The sign was made, delivered and hung.

Three other children, concerned about children that were homeless, thought that these kids could use some books to read. Before starting a collection, they called our city’s family shelter and discovered that not only did they need books, but they also needed a bookshelf to store them in. Over several weeks the girls (with the help of their dads) constructed a bookshelf and collected children’s books at school. It was a very proud moment when a representative from the shelter came to pick these up and thank the girls.

A group of four students thought about how hard it is for new kids who come to our school. Working with our principal they found that there was no formal welcoming plan and it was decided that the school needed one. So we now have a brochure that “helps new kids learn important facts about our school” and includes a map with all the teachers’ names.

There were other projects too. A group of students concerned about prejudice organized a diversity dinner and parade with the help of our district’s diversity coordinator. There were lots of smiles as family members, teachers and children marched and danced around the school to the beat of drums. With the help of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, two other groups of children organized Green-Up Days at their local neighborhood parks. They warned people about a “disease from dog poop called E-coli that makes you very sick or can kill you.” Another group of children organized a peer-tutoring program where first graders read books to older children, practiced their addition facts using flash cards and played educational games.

The original starting point for all these projects was our essential question: How can we make our school and community a better place for everyone today and tomorrow? We started by mixing our four classes together in groups of five or six children. Their task was to decide on what needed to happen in order to answer our essential question. All the groups were brought together and their ideas posted. What followed was a group discussion to narrow down all the ideas to seven; from that we created our “quality of life index.” The projects grew from this index.

Quality of Life Index:
• world peace with no discrimination
• cleaner environment
• safer community
• stop cruelty to animals
• more hospitals
• more homes for homeless
• more drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers

I think what made this work especially meaningful was that it was initiated by the children. They owned both the Quality of Life Index and the project ideas. In addition their efforts culminated in a concrete action that had an impact or potential impact on other people. In the process they learned to cooperate with the other children in their group (using “teamwork” skills was one of the standards that was assessed) and to communicate and work with adults—school and community members—as partners in accomplishing their goals. I believe that it is these types of projects that provide the most opportunity for children to learn to become active and involved members of their community.

The children, however, did not initiate all of the project ideas. Creating a courtyard habitat for butterflies and birds, composting in the lunchroom, growing tomato plants, checking the phosphorus level of a creek by our school, bicycle safety and learning how systems operate from a living machine are a few examples of projects that were initiated by adults.

What I discovered about these projects is that their meaning to children varied based on two factors. One was the extent to which they were linked back to the children’s Quality of Life Index. The other was the extent to which the children were involved in the planning and implementation of the projects (even though the project ideas were initiated by adults). Both of these factors gave authentic ownership to the children.

This same year the four/five team’s education for sustainability also involved a study of wetland, food and energy systems. I helped to plan the food system unit where the children (and I) learned about conventional versus local food systems and organic farming versus the use of pesticides and the impact of these decisions on the environment, our local economy and our personal health.

Local farmers, who came to our school, and our school nurse were two of the resources we used to learn about food systems and their impact. Children traced the origin of the fruits and vegetables they eat at home and at school. The parent of one child told us that her son had asked a worker in the produce department of a local supermarket where a pineapple came from and then told his parents not to buy it because the transportation required to get it to Vermont caused too much pollution. As a culminating activity children created the most sustainable pizza possible in Burlington, Vermont.

Reflecting on this unit, I think it could have been more empowering for children if the culminating tasks were more meaningful. For example, we could have explored ways to impact the choices of the school lunch program and could also have done more to educate the children’s families about the impact of their food choices. Although the sustainable pizza was useful as an assessment tool, it was not an output that really impacted the quality of people’s lives. I do think, however, we did a good job of helping the children learn about the issues involved in a food system and how those issues affect people’s lives. We just didn’t go far enough with our culminating activity.

This year with our Shelburne Farms partners we initiated a project called “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Kids.” In teams, children assessed the roads, sidewalks and parks in their neighborhoods and created a neighborhood report card. City council representatives from our school’s neighborhood, along with the Mayor, were then invited to our school to hear the results. Some of their requests included more stop signs or speed bumps, improved sidewalks, removed graffiti, and more climbing structures in their parks.

Reflecting on the meaning of this project, I think we were successful in raising children’s awareness of an issue that clearly affected the quality of their lives and their neighbors’ lives. I think we fell short, however, by not doing a Quality of Life Index this year. This is a powerful umbrella that links all activities to the children’s voicing of how to make their world a better place. In addition we did not engage them enough in the process. We could have asked them, “What makes a safe and healthy neighborhood?” and “How are we going to find out?” Then we could have asked, “Who should we communicate this to and how should we do it?” Instead, the adults planned the process. I think we might have incorrectly assumed since we had done the Quality of Life Index for the last two years that it had become part of the culture on our team. It’s critical that each year we think about how to engage the students and help them own the work that was started by students before them. Authentic work done by a previous year’s class doesn’t automatically become authentic for the next year’s students. (Photo : Students working on their letter to city officials)

So this reflection has reminded me of something I learned a while ago: the best way to start meaningful work for children is with a resonating question. A question the children care about and that will motivate them to do the ensuing work. In our case the question was “How can we make our school and community a better place for everyone today and tomorrow?” And it is then the teacher’s challenge to fit the required curriculum, or as much as possible of it, under the umbrella of this driving question.* In addition the end result of the work needs to have a real impact or real potential impact on the lives of people. And the people we can most impact are those in our own community: our school, our neighborhood, or our city. To create authentic work for children we must also engage them in the process: how the work will be carried out. Another factor that gives the work meaning and credibility is the involvement of the community, which includes the school as a whole, children’s families and the larger neighborhood and/or city. If we find time for children to engage in this kind of work, I believe we will go a long way to helping them become adults who think and care about the world around them and have the confidence, belief and the skills to know that they can make a difference. In the hands of these future adults we can have faith in the future.

*A great resource for planning curriculum based on a “burning question” is the book Learning in Overdrive by Ruth Mitchell, Marilyn Willis and The Chicago Teacher’s Union Quest Center, published by North American Press.

Brent's reflection appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Community Works Journal.

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