What do you get when you ask a class of resourceful fifth graders to take the lead on a community-focused project?
An impressive array of impact-making solutions.
That’s a truth that Rowland Hall’s fifth-grade teaching team discovered this year, thanks to a new project-based learning (PBL) opportunity that kicked off in the fall and, after months of dedicated student work, wrapped earlier this month.
The project, the first of its kind for the grade, began taking shape at a summer PBL workshop attended by two of the fifth-grade teachers, Sam Johnson and Colleen Thompson, who brought an idea to fellow teachers Jen Bourque and Dr. Torry Montes, both of whom had PBL experience from previous schools and were excited to bring a new idea to life in their Rowland Hall classrooms. The team wanted to connect their students’ learning with an understanding of their place within community, as well as—thanks to the nature of PBL, which promotes deep learning through student choice and leadership—empower them to take charge of an opportunity to build connections across the larger Salt Lake community. They decided to identify a shared public space that could use improvement, picturing it as a canvas on which students could lead the charge of finding ways to better serve the community, and they chose Bend in the River, a somewhat neglected park along the Jordan River Parkway, as the space for the project. They planned an October field trip to introduce students to the area.
Their discussion focused not on transforming the space they stood in, but on examining larger societal issues that contributed to unmaintained spaces, pollution, and a lack of housing. And since PBL is designed to follow students’ areas of interest, rather than adults’, it quickly became clear that the project was going to shift in unexpected, and exciting, ways.
But when the teachers took the students to Bend in the River, things didn’t unfold quite as expected. Instead of discussing how they wanted to change the area, the kids instead wanted to discuss the why behind what they were seeing: litter, broken structures, water pollution, and unhoused people. Their conversation focused not on transforming the space they stood in, but on examining larger societal issues that contributed to unmaintained spaces, pollution, and a lack of housing. And since PBL is designed to follow students’ areas of interest, rather than adults’, it quickly became clear that the project was going to shift in unexpected, and exciting, ways.
“We had this idea of proposals to change this park, but that didn’t come from the kids,” said Jen. As a result, the role of Bend in the River changed. “It became the place we used to come back to how that place is related to issues that touch the greater Salt Lake community.”
To better support their students’ burgeoning interests, the fifth-grade team refocused the project, moving away from transforming a specific space to answering an essential question: What do communities need to thrive? In November, they relaunched the project with an in-school field trip composed of rotations that would help students answer that question, determine what they were most passionate about, and identify where they wanted to work toward making an impact. “We were embracing the ever-moving target that is project-based learning,” explained Jen.
As part of the in-school field trip, the teachers brought in community members who could speak about creating connections and working toward solutions that benefit a shared community, a choice that was well-received and led to visits from additional representatives who generously shared their knowledge over the coming weeks: Britney Helmers and Josh Schuerman from Little City; Will Wright from the Salt Lake City Office of Economic Development; Tyler Fonarow, recreational trails manager for Salt Lake City Corporation; Ann Wigham (parent), Stan Stensrud, and Kimo Pokini from Ruff Haven; David Garbett (parent) from O2 Utah; Greta Hamilton, stormwater program supervisor for Salt Lake County Public Works & Municipal Services; Brian Tonetti from Seven Canyons Trust; Mat Jones, District 2 supervisor for the Utah Department of Public Lands; and foothill rangers Haley Long and Eric Creel.
As the students learned about and discussed what communities need to thrive, four areas of interest naturally rose to the surface: environment, unhoused community, arts and community spaces, and trails and parks. It was decided that, in place of the original Bend in the River idea, students would find solutions to community problems within the four areas, each of which would be led by a teacher who could provide coaching, feedback, and support. And as an added benefit, the teachers structured the project so that students could work with their peers in other fifth-grade classes, a helpful experience for this group of rising middle schoolers.
The three A's allow students to be young changemakers in their own communities and prepare them for the challenges of the world they are going to inherit.—Dr. Torry Montes, fifth-grade teacher
The teachers also wanted to use the experience to help students better understand the many ways people can make real-world impact, which they did by introducing them to the three A’s: awareness, action, and advocacy. They explained that each A stood for a way people can make change: generate awareness by bringing attention to a problem, take action by moving forward on a solution, or act as advocates for policies that help people. The three A's, explained Dr. Torry, are often considered the goal of high-quality PBL.
“Educator Tony Wagner states that project-based learning is one of the best ways to meet all of the 21st-century learning goals,” she said. “The three A's allow students to be young changemakers in their own communities and prepare them for the challenges of the world they are going to inherit.”
Inspired by the ways they could make communities better, the students set to work researching causes and solutions, reaching out to groups and organizations, and creating a variety of projects that impressively showcased each of the three A’s, including proposals, petitions, posters, websites, flyers, and even a poem. By early March, when the students shared their final solutions at an open house, they had truly illustrated how young learners, when empowered to lead their learning, can take action, build awareness, and advocate for what they believe in. And as parents and caregivers wandered the fifth-grade wing, examining the projects, they were amazed by what they saw, recognizing how this work would benefit community organizations—including Salt Lake City Corporation, Tiny Village, Family Promise, Crossroads Urban Center, and Rowland Hall, not to mention the community members whose lives would be enhanced through the students’ ideas around clean water, safe shelters, and environmental protections—as well as the students themselves. Through this experience, the students learned life skills that will benefit them long after they leave their fifth-grade classrooms—including leaning on their own thinking to approach real-world problems. It’s a skill that’s essential, and one they’ll be encouraged to build on as they move on to middle school, and beyond.
“This is preparing them for their futures,” said Jen.
As part of their community project, Rowland Hall’s fifth graders were asked to not only choose the areas of change they wanted to pursue, but also to decide how they wanted to creatively share their work with others. We’re proud to include in this story the students’ choices for the Rowland Hall community’s enjoyment, and have provided examples of the students’ work in the galleries below. We also invite readers to read the students’ reflection essays on the experience, written to be published here in Fine Print.
Students learned that generating awareness is essential to bringing attention to a problem, what needs to be done, and who should be involved. Click below to view the gallery.
Students learned that action means moving forward on solving a problem they have identified. Click below to view the gallery.
Students learned that advocacy is designed to influence policy, helping to mobilize community members toward improvements. Click below to view the gallery.