In this piece, Jennifer Roberson, a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Charleston, South Carolina, shares an inspiring project her students developed after reading a nonfiction story as a class.
In my experience as an educator, I have found that students truly want to improve their communities and world. In a time when we are all dealing with so much, projects centered on powerful nonfiction stories can inspire students to channel their energy and desire to help others. I’ve seen this time and again with my students. This is just one example.
One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with this was when a group of my fifth-grade students helped educate their community about a topic we studied in class. In turn, their efforts helped another child in Africa.
I use Storyworks® with my students, a language arts classroom magazine from Scholastic for grades 4–6. An article from the September 2018 issue titled “The Boy Who Couldn’t Smile” by Lauren Tarshis describes the story of a boy named Osawa who was born with cleft lips. Osawa looked different than his peers and some people were mean to him. One day, Osawa’s life changed when his family learned about the charity Smile Train, which helps provide free surgeries to kids in need around the world. My students also read a paired text about a 10-year-old who sets up a lemonade stand every year to raise money for Smile Train.
My students engaged in great discussions about why they disagreed with the way people had treated Osawa prior to his surgery, and were joyful when Osawa was given a surgery from Smile Train to correct his cleft lip. They were so touched that they researched more about Smile Train, and they discovered how treatment occurs in America. Best of all, they wanted to help this organization help more children. So they decided to have a bake sale during our school’s fall festival, an event that many community members attend, to raise funds. They met with our principal to discuss the idea, developed a presentation about Smile Train for attendees, organized the bake sale, and raised enough money to fund a surgery!
The curiosity, research, and empathy this powerful story inspired in my students were all effects of quality nonfiction literature in the classroom, serving as the springboard for kids to take ownership of their learning and realize the positive change they can make in the world. I too was moved, and gave my students the time and support they needed and wanted to explore this topic.
What has stuck with my students and me the most is how we were able to learn about life through a view point other than our own by reading. It was so inspiring to see my students take what they learned to inform others and help someone they don’t even know. As an educator, having access to resources that can spark true engagement and inspire these types of projects that educate the community and bring about change, are what I value most.
These are the types of reading experiences I continue to seek out for my students, especially in this time that is so uncertain for all of us. Sadly one of my students who helped with this project did not know that she was going to have to deal with personal challenges of her own. Her kind mother, who helped organize the bake sale, just passed away from breast cancer. Life is not easy for kids all over the world. True stories of kids rising above so many challenges is what our students need to realize their own strength and resilience.
Photo (c): matka_Wariatka/Shutterstock