When learning takes place within a truly authentic context, students will soar.
Our upcoming author visit has been scheduled for more than a year, but just a few months ago, writer-friend Loree Griffin Burns reached out to me with a twist she had been thinking about. "Are you familiar with Authors for Earth Day (A4ED)?" Loree asked in an email. "I'd like to make OES my A4ED school."
I wasn't familiar, but between a visit to the website and Loree's explanation, I was sure we wanted to be her A4ED school, too. In short, authors who are a part of the A4ED school agree to donate some or all of their school visit fee to a conservation organization of the students' choosing. Yes, there was some work in it for my students, but every bit of the work was well-aligned to curricular goals and instruction.
One month before our visit, Loree Skyped with the fifth graders to introduce the A4ED project. She introduced herself and her work, and she briefly told the students about the three conservation organizations and their work, and then they would be responsible to help the other voters in the school make an educated vote.
Loree's three conservation organizations included Maine Audubon Society, The Ocean Conservancy, and The Xerces Society. Students set to work immediately to visit these websites and learn more about each group's work. In two periods' time, they would complete a quick survey about their first and second choices to help me build relatively equal groups of supporters to take the work forward.
With newly organized and somewhat informed groups in place, the students started the one-week task of researching and writing an evidence-based opinion letter to Loree to convince her why the organization they chose should receive her donation. Their motivation and confidence levels were high. They used all the resources of our previous opinion writing work, and we revisited the importance of knowing the audience you're writing for, because these traditional writing products would not be the only outcome of the project.
At the same time, the students began to work on a short persuasive presentation to educate other students about their organization. As part of the presentation, each group was responsible for creating a digital product using Canva or Google Slides that voters could take away from the presentation as persuasive material. There was so much synthesis happening as groups prepared for the range of audiences (grades K through 6) and thought about what would be most convincing and memorable to students, hoping to guarantee a vote for their organization. The transfer of strong opinion skills to persuasive speeches was well-supported by the authentic context.
Tomorrow, Loree will visit OES for a two-day series of presentations at our school, and tomorrow students will begin to vote for the conservation organization that will win Loree's donation. Which will get the vote is hard to say, but what is certain is this: this project has already been a huge win for the fifth graders.