I have been teaching seniors English for over 10 years now. I’ve met a variety of unique, interesting, sometimes challenging individuals and weathered numerous shifts in curriculum with them. One of the joys of my job is getting to know my students over the course of the year (sometimes over the course of multiple years if I had them earlier in their high school careers). Understanding their goals, dreams, pasts, concerns, struggles, and triumphs not only enriches our time together but helps to shape my instructional goals as well. Over time I began to realize that many were unaware or uninvolved in addressing some of the needs and issues within our community. I decided to work to change that.
Several years ago I was teaching Honors English 9 and I decided to try an experiment. I asked for volunteers to help aid in a short term community action project. We arranged a day to go to a nearby storage facility that then housed the Pickerington Food Pantry’s unsorted canned and boxed donations. It was pouring down rain that day and freezing cold but we dived in and worked together to get two entire storage containers sorted. The kids felt a great sense of accomplishment and talked about how they’d love an outlet to become more involved.
I decided to build off this experience by introducing a Cause and Effect Community Action Project in my senior classes about three years ago. The idea was simple: have the kids pick a social issue they genuinely care about, research both the issue and existing resources that address it, and then design some type of group action project that has them actively going out into the communities of Central Ohio to try to help make a positive change, document their projects (the good and the bad), and report the details of their project from start to finish back to the class.
The assignment continues to evolve each year and is embraced by the students because it allows them to design and implement it. I view my role as an advisor and I’ve been humbled by what they’ve been able to accomplish. Some projects are successful beyond the wildest dreams of the students. Some fail to come together as planned but even then they learn from the experience. These real world experiences are invaluable in broadening students horizons, working through team dynamics, setting shared goals, interacting with a variety of people in the community from very different backgrounds but with shared agendas, in teaching coping skills, self-directed learning, creative thinking, building positive community relations, problem solution reasoning, reflection, and in building self-esteem. It also re-enforces the thematic ideas present in so many of the literature we teach. Additionally, it allows me an opportunity for professional collaboration both in the building and with the larger community outside the school.
This year alone students worked with such organizations as: Children’s Hospital, The Ronald McDonald House, several different area humane societies and even a horse rescue facility in Athens, OH, worked with Risen Son and camped out in the school courtyard for a week to raise awareness of homelessness (I camped out with them as well), donated to local food pantries such as the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and Pickerington Food Pantry, volunteered at a Columbus Recreation Center, Wesley Ridge Retirement Community, cleaned up trash in local parks, raised greater awareness about eating disorders, e-waste recycling, animal abuse and adoption, raised donations and goods for military care packages for troops overseas, and volunteered to help serve food at local churches.
My dream is that one day soon such community action projects will become the norm in secondary education. I think the more lives such projects touch the more people will begin to realize what amazing learning opportunities these projects are. I was so pleased when one of my groups mentioned that a volunteer at Children’s Hospital, who happens to also teach in the Columbus Public School District, was excited to hear about their project and expressed interest in providing a similar opportunity to her students next year. Many groups have stated that they plan to become regular volunteers with the groups/organizations they worked with and have begun to encourage others to do so as well.
“Do not be bound by limits you place on yourself. It is only when you reach beyond what you think you can do that you will surely do far more than you thought you could.”
–Chiungalla foster father of Tecumseh
This piece was written by English teacher and writer Pete Planisek. Follow his blog at Enceladus Literary. Also, see what his students accomplished through their projects this year in the article “Students go Homeless to Raise Awareness, Money” in the Pickerington Sun Times and check out the fundraising his students did for the homeless on this FundRzr page.