Hornet Pride: Engaging Students in Authentic Learning

Earlier last school year, a parent shared a grant opportunity with me from Delta Dental to add filtered water bottling drinking fountains to our school.  I loved this idea. My school is located 36 miles from Flint, Michigan so we are well aware of the importance of having access to clean drinking water. The students had also been very interested in this topic.  I knew my fifth grade teachers had talked about the Flint water crisis quite a bit in their classrooms so I thought this could be a great opportunity to engage students in an authentic learning opportunity. I knew this grant writing opportunity would align well with the informational writing standards the students were studying during writing workshop.

The teachers were on board and excited to have the students participate in this learning opportunity.  They started by looking at the questions on the grant application. These would be guiding questions for the research.  The students decided that they were going to divide up the questions using Google Docs to help focus their research. It was inspiring to see the groups work on different parts of the project.  They were passionate about the topic and applying everything they were learning during writing workshop to make a difference in the real world. One group was researching the benefits of drinking water compared to pop and sugary juices.  Another group was learning about the negative effects that contaminated water has on health and development. They were drafting responses and editing and revising them together. They learned about how to find quality sources, cite research, use clear, concise word choice, and the importance of considering their audience.  I saw the students engaged in informational writing in ways I hadn’t seen been before. They were excited and had a clear sense of purpose.

After several more rewrites, we were finally ready to submit our application.  We clicked send and waited. The students asked several times over the next couple of weeks if I had heard anything from Delta Dental about the grant.  I explained that it takes time to read all of the applications and it would probably be awhile before we heard anything. Right around the time students stopped asking about the grant, I received an email from Delta Dental.  I was so excited to open the email. The students worked hard on the grant and completed each question on their own for the grant. I was confident Delta Dental would be impressed that the entire grant was completed by the students in the school.  I knew this was exactly the kind of authentic learning opportunity that would separate our grant from the rest. I was so excited to share the email with the students. I opened the email and had to read it twice. Delta Dental thanked us for applying but they regretted to inform us that we did not receive the grant.  

Suddenly, I realized I needed to prepare for a completely different conversation with the students.  While completing the project, I had never considered not getting the grant. I had spent a lot of time thinking about how awesome it was going to be to tell the students about the grant we received.  I had envisioned the pride the students would have looking at the new filtered drinking fountain. I shared the news with the students and they were disappointed, but not nearly how I had expected. The next question I heard from a student was, “So what’s our new idea?”  I hadn’t considered that thought before approaching the class. In my mind, the rejection letter from Delta Dental was the end of the journey. However, they didn’t see it that way at all. They viewed it as just another roadblock in the journey of getting a new drinking fountain.  I admitted to them that I didn’t have a plan for a next step. It took two students exactly two days to come up with a next step.

Owen and Nathan, two fifth grade students from Nicol Howald’s class, emailed me and said they wanted to meet to discuss the next idea for getting the drinking fountain installed at Hemmeter.  I was impressed with their perseverance and commitment to making this idea a reality. They told me they were working on a presentation during their genius hour time and wanted to share it with me.  The boys were organized and professional during the meeting and convinced me to allow them to organize a class pop can collection fundraiser to buy the new drinking fountain. They were going to create the flyers, make the posters, collect the cans, and handle all the returns (including washing them out).  The one part of the meeting with Owen and Nathan that really swelled my heart with pride was when they mentioned that this was their last year at Hemmeter and they really wanted the drinking fountain to be something they could do for future students. That was when I realized we had to make this happen. It wasn’t just about getting a new drinking fountain, this was about students understanding in a very real way what it means to give back to your school.  I approved the project and wished them good luck.

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The boys worked hard and collected over 1500 pop cans.  A significant chunk of money that when combined with some additional building funds I had available was enough to purchase the new drinking fountain!  I am working to get a plaque made for the drinking fountain to recognize the hard work and determination the boys displayed seeing this project through.  Amazing things happen when we engage students with authentic work. The application and learning goes well beyond academics. It’s about building pride in school and community and having a generous, kind heart.

One thought on “Hornet Pride: Engaging Students in Authentic Learning

  1. First, I can’t believe another group would have a better application! Second, it’s great those boys took their learning to another level. Our school will soon have a new basketball hoop on the playground thanks to 3 boys in my class last year who were annoyed about not being able to shoot baskets at recess. I can hardly wait to hand them a basketball so they can be the first to use it! It’s been a huge learning experience!

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