I learned about writing prompts my first year teaching: “Class, today you are to write your opinion: Should students be allowed to chew gum in school?” These generic prompts had the same result. The upper 25% of my class robotically wrote superb essays. Others begrudgingly went through the motions with barely passable marks. What’s left? Three students turned in a blank page. Why? Good writing requires a reason.
I struggled with canned curriculum. It bored the students and it bored me. Still, being “newish” to teaching, I shied away from creative approaches to change. Once tenured, I questioned the system. There must be a better way than blindly following a system that produced the same results year after year.
Sometime in 2010, I watched a video clip from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Dead Zones of Puget Sound.” The video flashed images of fish gulping low-oxygenated water, surrounded by their dead brethren. The seafloor was carpeted with decaying lingcod, octopuses, and too many other species to list. Puget Sound waters were fouled by phosphates from soap and nitrates from fertilizer. Algae blooms fed on these substances, resulting in the loss of dissolved oxygen. Sea life was drowning.
I grew up boating these waters as a child. I recall catching a fish with every cast in the mid 1970s. Over the years, catching fish in the Puget Sound became more of a challenge than it is worth. After watching that video, I understood why the fishing of my childhood was gone. Decades of pollutants had devastated this once vibrant fishery.
I wondered how my students would react watching this clip. My childhood was full of abundant wildlife. This generation is denied what I experienced. They would not know what was lost, as this is the new normal.
Did I dare try something different? Should I replace the upcoming writing prompt, “You found a watch that could stop time for everyone but you…” with something tangible? Yes, I elected to engage the students with substance. I was curious to see if they would see themselves as stakeholders. If so, would that inspire them to write?
I started the lesson with, “Have any of you ever fished the Puget Sound?” My question was met with blank stares. I reminisced about my childhood experience fishing with my grandfather. After sharing my memories, students were excited to go fishing and experience the joy of catch and release, and yes, sometimes eat. I explained that they may not have the same luck catching fish that I had as a child. I then played the video, “Dead Zones in the Puget Sound.” The class had the same reaction I had, disgust and outrage. I posed the question, “What can you do about this?”
My students became a hive of advocacy to protect these waters. They researched ways they could be a part of the solution. I did not have to cajole any student to write. Struggling students became enthusiastic writers. It was almost a kind of mutiny. I provided a few websites for their research. Those seeds lead to many more websites they had uncovered. Not one student said, “Mr. Fritz, I don’t know what to write.”
Soon, the school librarian was at my door admonishing my class for the copious amount of color copies overwhelming her machine. “Do you have any idea how much color ink costs, Mr. Fritz?” Her request fell on deaf ears. My students wanted the research. Each student was finding new facts and sharing what they found. The room was filled with, “did you know…” “can you believe…” “check this out…”
I was a mere spectator watching a chain reaction of knowledge being exchanged. The students were sharing their research and peer editing. It was amusing being ignored by the class. A motivated student does not require much teacher input.
When the first few published copies were placed on my desk, I was shocked by the quality of their papers. I shipped their demands for action to Senator Hobbs, our district’s state Senator. To our surprise, he responded.
He wrote my students telling them he used their papers to help advocate for his bill to reduce nitrates and phosphates from commonly used products in Washington State. A couple of weeks later, Senator Hobbs met my class in person to thank them for advocating to ridd Washington State of products containing phosphates and nitrates. That bill is now law.
Lesson learned. Give the students a compelling reason to write. Result: writers are created.
Over the years, experts in this and that have inspired each of my classes to write for a reason. Give a child the desire to make change and then get out of their way and let it happen.
Finding topics that inspire students is not difficult. For example, I take my students on a whale watching charter every year. I invite Dr. Cindy Elliser, with Pacific Mammal Research, to educate my class prior to the pelagic journey. She educates about marine mammals and the human impact on their environment. All I have to ask after the presentation is, “Who wants to save our resident Orca population?” They all do, of course. No writing prompt needed.
Students are easy to engage. Pick a topic of controversy that will impact them now or in the future. Search the web for organizations regarding those topics. In my experience, there is an endless supply of professionals willing to educate your students about why they are advocating for change. No funding needed. Nonprofits are eager to spread their call to action.
Sometime in 2019, first term State Senator Mona Das sponsored a bill banning single-use plastic bags. This caught my eye on the morning news. That day, I posed the question, “What, if any, impact does single-use plastic bags have on the environment?” As they clicked their way through different websites, the energy in the room rose. When their fervor reached a boiling point, I asked an open ended question as not to bias their response, “Should single use plastic bags stay or go?” One student blurted, “There should be a law that bans this trash!” The rest of the class echoed his sentiment. I asked, “Any of you find a reason to continue the use of single use plastic bags?” The room was silent.
I challenged my students to write papers requesting just what they had demanded, a law banning single-use plastic bags. That they did. Papers turned out above grade level and the illustrations matched the writing.
Soon their papers were in the hands of Senator Das. My phone rang the day she received their testimonials. I thought I was being pranked. I asked her to repeat who she was three times before believing that I was standing in my classroom speaking to a State Senator. She wanted to meet these students through Skype. A week later, my students were having a candid conversation with the Senator over Skype. My principal, John Balmer, wore a grin during the entire meeting. After the call, Mr. Balmer invited my class to present at the school board. These students wowed the board members with their passionate papers to rid the planet of plastic.
A year later, the bill to ban single use plastic bags passed the Senate and went to the house. Senator Das invited my students from the previous year to testify before the house. On February 20th, several of my former students went to Olympia and testified in support of the bill. I watched their testimony on TV from my classroom. Riley Gibson and Colton Martin educated this congress why it was past time to ban single use plastic bags. They owned that room! Their environmental passion they injected into those lawmakers was palpable.
Senator Das recently wrote my district’s superintendent, Dr. AmyBeth Cook:
My name is Senator Mona Das and I represent the 47th district in Washington State. Last year, I was surprised to open a package from Glenwood Elementary full of papers that supported my bill to ban single use plastic bags. My staff and I read these papers and we were brought to tears. The passion in these papers was moving. We were all stunned that 5th graders were able to put together such compelling evidence to help my bill move forward. It recently passed the Senate and is now in the House. It is a slow process…
I had the pleasure to video conference with his students to thank them for their efforts to save the environment. That conference led to an invite to go whale watching with all the 5th graders at Glenwood.
A whale watching trip for 5th graders! That is such an impactful way to drive home the importance of protecting our environment. That was a very memorable experience for me too.
This year I asked Mr. Fritz if he would consider having his students study the effect that Styrofoam is having on our state’s ecosystem… I asked him if he could ask a few families if they would like to come down on their own and testify in support of my bill.
My staff and I were again completely blown away by Mr. Fritz’s students. They eloquently stated their case and were the stars of the day! I was so happy Mr. Fritz was able to attend and witness the product of his hard work…
Mr. Fritz’s concept has been so effective, that I am connecting him with a few other teachers I know. We want to create a program where students are involved in the political process… It is so empowering!
The above quote covers two years working with Senator Das. Last year my class tackled the issue of banning single use plastic bags. Senator Das promised my class, “If this bill passes, I invite you all to Governor Inslee’s bill signing.” That bill became law in March of 2020. Sadly, the pandemic made it impossible for those students to attend the signing.
During the Fall of this school year, Senator Das asked my new batch of students to advocate for her bill to ban styrofoam, “You all have a powerful voice and good ideas. We need to hear you, not only in Washington state but around the country and around the world. Tell your friends, tell your relatives, tell your policymakers – it’s time to ban single-use plastics, for earth’s sake and for ours.”
Her request energized my students to research this issue. The result was the same. They embraced her request and got to work. A class of eco-warriors wrote compelling testimony that supported Senator Das’s bill. I never guide these students to choose a side. After researching, the student self discovers that these products are toxic. They form their own opinion to support these causes.
My class was invited to testify before the Senate committee. Unfortunately, Senator Das’s bill was moved up on the calendar. I got a 3 day warning to put together a field trip. At a minimum it takes 14 days to organize a field trip. As an alternative, I held a lottery to select two students to skip school and testify in Olympia.
The two lotto winners were, Kylee Reynolds and Madison Decrescenzo, they testified on behalf of the class on January 21, 2020.
This is an excerpt of Madison’s testimony, “The toxin styrene enters the food chain. If any of you enjoy seafood, you are also getting a small dose of this substance, along with mercury and other poisons caused by human neglect to regulate industrial pollution. Banning Styrofoam is just common sense.”
This is an excerpt of Kylee’s testimony, “IKEA has already stopped using Styrofoam for their products! Instead of using Styrofoam they are using a mushroom based packaging. Let’s follow in their footsteps and make Washington State Styrofoam free!” A gentleman that followed my students said, “They’re going to be a hard act to follow!”
I am reaching out to other teachers to share my story. Involving students in a real process creates excitement to learn. An intrinsic desire to learn is an easy classroom to manage. An engaged student does the heavy lifting and enjoys doing it.
Spreading this philosophy is the next step. Student collaboration with outside groups/causes, creates a self perpetuating desire to learn. When a student feels, “I can make a difference,” change happens.
The pandemic of 2020 is a challenge for educators. Classroom management is difficult to apply to distance learning. Now is the perfect time to empower students to research and advocate for a cause. Teachers, students, and families all feel out of their element.
Students have an innate desire to learn but the majority lack the maturity of self direction. Now more than ever the teacher must create the “want” behind the learning. So far I’ve found success in this new teaching environment.
I purchased an incubator and sixteen Mallard Duck eggs. The students got a photo with the caption, “I need your help! I have no idea how to hatch and raise wild ducks. Please research and tell me what to do!” The result: a lot of engaged students teaching Mr. Fritz how to raise wild ducks. Now that I have buy in, they get duck-related math, “A Mallard Duck can fly 40 mph. How long would it take a Mallard to fly 2000 miles?”
These new realities of distance learning will not be short term. Creative approaches of engagement is the secret sauce to weathering this pandemic.