Sunday, November 24, 2013


In my classroom, we gave thanks one week before Thanksgiving.

Last Thursday, thirteen students gave twelve local non-profits $2500. It was a way for my students to say 'thank you' to those hard working organizations who try to make our community and the world a better place.

Here's how it happened!

The idea came from a conversation with my National Writing Project coordinator who encouraged me on my path to find more and more authentic audiences. She had done something just like this in a nearby community and said the rewards for students, organizations, and community alike were all extraordinary.

Once I had the idea, I needed the money. I went to the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. I know the work of this organization well and thought this would be a perfect blend. They were willing to hear and ready to be involved.

(Quick note: I'm incredibly proud to live in a community where people are willing to listen to unique ideas and encourage them if they see the value.)

Then, three weeks ago, my students went to work. This was an MLA research paper--a staple in our curriculum--with a whole lot of power behind it.

The basic premise of the Words Have Power MLA argumentative essay contest were as follows:
  • Each student picked a local non-profit for which to argue.
  • Then, each student engaged in gathering research on that non-profit by working online and by contacting the director of the organization.
  • After the essay received its revisions and edits, we went through a class-determined democratic process to reach the final three essays.
  • Those three essays allowed the students of each class (four total classes, with one tie in one class) to award $350 for 1st place, $150 for 2nd, and $100 for 3rd.

So, what exactly, are the positive outcomes from this project? There are a slew of them, some of which are listed below:

  • It brings the schools and community closer together
  • It gives a real audience to my students who, in turn, work harder and better
  • It produces the same MLA research skills as have always been required in my class
  • It gives the students a sense of philanthropy
  • It makes the community aware that teenagers do not always fit the stereotype
  • It allows students to see the power of a vote
  • It taught students the value of formatting as some essays were voted out purely based on it
  • It requires students to find and interview the director of the organization
  • It gives parents a chance to feel what is happening in the classroom
  • It shows students that WORDS HAVE POWER

One student, in a reflection, said, "It benefits the students, it benefits the nonprofits, and everyone within the community."

Another stated, "As a community member I think I have grown. I didn't even know that some of these organizations existed and now I've learned of some amazing organizations that do truly amazing work for the world and this area."

I believe in this project. And I want to encourage YOU (if you're a teacher) to do it, too. I try to avoid being demanding in this blog, only offering up my experiences to be taken as you like.  

But, this one? This one you should try.

Because students don't have to wait to make a difference in our community. They can learn, right now, that WORDS HAVE POWER.

The students and the representatives of the local non-profits at an award ceremony last Thursday.

The organizations who benefited:
  • The NOAH Project
  • Center for Women in Transition
  • Michele's Rescue
  • Spring Lake High School Choir
  • West Michigan Hospice
  • Bethany Christian Services
  • Alliance for the Great Lakes
  • Children's Advocacy Center
  • GoodTemps
  • Children's Hair Loss
  • Spring Lake High School's Be Nice.
  • Habitat for Humanity

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Join Us as Upstanders to ELEVATE EMPATHY

In my commitment to writing one blog post per week, I have found myself only occasionally short on time. Tonight is one of those nights.


Tonight, instead putting in the usual amount of time to write this blog, I'm thinking about--and preparing for--tomorrow's final community book club event: THE LAUNCH. We're calling it that because that's precisely what it is: it is our community's launch to ELEVATE EMPATHY.

But, we want you to be upstanders with us, to ELEVATE EMPATHY in your own community as we keep working on ours. Whether you're viewing this in a different city, a different state, or a different country, please take the first step.

Join the conversation. Please join our Facebook group at this link:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Letter to a (Struggling) Teacher Friend Just Starting Her Profession

Dear Friend,

Teaching is hard. The expectations are immense: we need to connect with students in order to change their lives, but we also need them to perform well on standardized tests for the sake of our school's success. We make plans and, if they go well, the day goes by unnoticed. If they go poorly, students begin to behave rudely and we question ourselves as effective teachers. It's just tough.

But, we need people like you. You are passionate, smart, and energetic. You want the absolute best for students even when they don't want it for themselves. You are creative and focused on improvement. You have good ideas--though they may fall on deaf ears from time to time.

I understand your frustrations--and I want to praise you for having and admitting them. It is the very best teachers who are concerned about their effectiveness. It is the very best teachers who are bothered by the students they can't reach emotionally instead of the many who they can reach easily.

Truth be told, you are effective; you've admitted that to me. In the classes you've taught before, you admit improvement. They are running easier and the plans have been rewritten to reflect understanding of your students. There is A LOT of good happening in your career. Are you celebrating that enough?

You work on the school's musical. You are willing to talk with students after school. You've created opportunities for students and parents to work together. You care about your subject area deeply, but you care about the students' learning even more.

All of this, put together, makes you a model teacher--someone to look up to, someone who is doing great work, someone who just needs to stick with it because it will get better with time.

All my best,

(P.S. For those of you who read my blog, please add to this the best you can. I know you don't know my particular friend, but you might know struggling new teachers. What do you say to those hard-working folks?)