Sunday, May 20, 2018

Authors for Earth Day: Authenticity at it's Best

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.
Once final drafts of the letters had been collected, the teams of researchers and writers moved to the next task, which involves educating their fellow students about Loree's visit and the A4ED vote. One part of the education step was for each group to make a pair of persuasive posters that would both educate and persuade student voters. The arrangement of our school is such that one poster would have a primary audience while the other would be geared towards intermediate peers. The conversations overheard in this stage, as the students wrestled with how much information to include and how to angle the text and visuals of their product, were inspired and thoughtful.

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.
We ended last week hosting round after round of oral presentations for student audiences of various ages (and parents and other school staff dropped by, too!). While the first rounds were a little jittery, the fifth graders quickly slid into a more comfortable spot, presenting like experts on their respective conservation organizations and trying to win the votes of their OES counterparts so that their organization will receive Loree's A4ED donation.
The fifth graders have done big work--from researching to writing to creating to sharing--in this four-week project, and they've done it all with incredible engagement and investment. With a meaningful and purposeful context for using and applying their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, they have soared, and the work has been a whole lot of fun, really.

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.