In August 2019, when the United Nations (UN) held its 68th Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City, Rowland Hall administrators seized the moment and took the entire sixth grade to the event.
“We wanted the sixth graders to take advantage of this historic opportunity to attend a UN conference for the first time outside of New York and San Francisco,” said Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education. “Because the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a unifying theme in the Middle School sixth- and seventh-grade curriculums, the opportunity was too good to pass up.”
So on August 26, the sixth graders—then in their second week of the school year—traveled to the Salt Palace Convention Center, where they met UN representatives from across the globe and participated in significant conversations around the conference’s theme of building inclusive and sustainable cities and communities. In addition to exposing the students to some of the larger ideas they would be examining over the year, the conference served as an important jumping-off point for an exciting new assignment: empathy-to-impact projects.
Brought to Rowland Hall by sixth-grade social studies teacher Mary Jo Marker, empathy-to-impact is designed to get students to think more deeply about global issues and how they can take steps to make a difference in the world. For its inaugural year at the school, Mary Jo asked students to choose projects that support the second UN Sustainable Development Goal: Zero Hunger. The assignment, she explained, is for each person to pick one action in support of that goal, research it, and then find a way to share their work with the larger community. Though the steps are simple, the project is intended to make a big impact in how students think about the world around them and their place within it.
My goal is that they experience an opportunity to practice their empathy, solidifying social justice work in the future.—Mary Jo Marker, sixth-grade social studies teacher
“My goal is that they experience an opportunity to practice their empathy, solidifying social justice work in the future,” Mary Jo said.
The project is also an exciting chance for the newly minted middle schoolers to take on more autonomy in their learning: they choose their research subjects and community group, as well as set their own timelines (the only requirement is to complete projects before the end of the school year). Mary Jo explained that this freedom empowers students by giving them more opportunity to think deeply about their topics and find creative ways to approach them. It also helps them to understand the power they have to make change, even at a young age—a major goal of a Rowland Hall education.
“We want our students to see themselves as changemakers in their communities,” Ryan said, “and find their voice around issues that give them a sense of purpose and inspire them to learn for life.”
Six months in, students are hard at work researching and presenting on a variety of topics that address the Zero Hunger goal—such as food waste, malnutrition, supporting local farms, and finding ways to provide healthy, safe food to low-income families—and making contacts throughout the community. Some students, like Samira Eller, are also finding ways to make connections between Rowland Hall’s campuses. While researching monocropping, the practice of growing the same crop on a plot of land year after year, she realized that she could educate elementary schoolers on the topic, helping them to not only understand how they can make an impact at a young age, but also closing the circle on one of her biggest takeaways from the Civil Society Conference.
“Hearing from so many young people from different parts of the world showed me that it is always possible to make a difference in the world, no matter your circumstances,” she said.
Samira decided that Rowland Hall’s fourth graders would be at an ideal age to grasp the concept. Plus, she added, “I enjoy enlightening younger kids and getting to see them understand things and learn.” In January, she presented her findings to the entire fourth grade on the McCarthey Campus, emphasizing the importance of diversifying crops and even throwing in some of the surprising facts she discovered in her research—for example, “the Cavendish banana—that yellow one you find in almost all of Utah’s mass groceries—is grown entirely in monoculture, even though it is the least flavorful of many different bananas,” she said.
The fourth graders loved it. Teacher Tyler Stack commented, “The students really enjoy when a peer from the middle or upper school comes to speak to them. They were engaged with the topic and excited to see what they are going to study the next few years.”
I learned that my voice can make a big difference and that making an impact in the world isn’t always about the big things, but more the little ones.Those students can almost certainly look forward to conducting their own empathy-to-impact research one day. Mary Jo is already planning on repeating the assignment next year, and will be opening it up to other Sustainable Development Goals. She is excited to see the kinds of ideas students will continue to come up with—and how it will improve their confidence as global citizens, as it has with Samira.
“I learned that my voice can make a big difference and that making an impact in the world isn’t always about the big things, but more the little ones,” Samira reflected. “Sometimes something might seem impossibly hard and dangerous, but in reality all it takes is a second to tell someone, ‘Hey, did you know…’ to make a pretty big dent.”
Top photo: Rowland Hall sixth graders hold cards displaying the UN's Sustainable Development Goals while attending the 68th Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City in August 2019.