If 7th Graders Were Mayor…
Students at Roosevelt Middle School participated in an essay competition that took them into their community and ended with a visit from the mayor.
Led by teacher Michelle Barker, a group of fourteen 7th grade girls wrote an essay answering the prompt: What would you do if you were mayor? “This assignment first asks the students to look at their community in its current state. We had some really great discussions about what they like about Cedar Rapids and some very serious discussions about what they would like to see change,” said Barker.
For many of the girls, this was a rare opportunity to take initiative in what they produce for school, rather than the topic being chosen for them. “I think it’s something special because it’s something that has a connection with me,” said student Ivana Ponce.
Ponce took her personal experience as an immigrant from Honduras to write her essay, which included themes such as more English Language Learners programs in schools. “I’m seeing that from the whole district, there are only 2 schools that are near each other that have [ELL], so it’s hard for people that live farther away. I live in the outskirts, so I wanted to have more ELL programs in other schools,” she explains.
Stephanie Gardner, another student, used her essay to try to stop a problem she had become aware of from watching the news. “My essay was about trying to help the community with texting and driving; to help it stop so accidents don’t happen anymore,” she said. Gardner researched her idea and found statistics online to support her efforts. This assignment took her further than just “feeling bad” for those affected by finding, “a good connection to help it stop,” she said.
With essay topics ranging from having more recreational centers, to placing security in local parks to prevent crime, these students evaluated their own environments and drew real conclusions on how to improve things. They learned more about their city, which to many of these girls is foreign.
Engaging these students with their surroundings transformed the way their saw their community, while simultaneously teaching them better writing practices. One technique the students engaged in was peer revision of each others’ papers. According to Barker, “the group has grown in their collaboration, as they are much more comfortable giving and seeking feedback. They have also improved in using details to explain their reasoning and basic writing skills like sentence structure and cohesiveness.”
Authentic Audience is Crucial:
What makes this essay different than any other paper? “This contest offered a larger ‘real world’ audience to my students. In my experience, students take a greater interest in the finer details of proofing and revising when they know their writing is going beyond the classroom,” says Barker.
To these students, this essay was more than your average paper. “I think that it’s different because you are actually expressing what you think and it’s helping you try and make a difference in the community. It also helps your knowledge because you think wisely about your different types of chances to help the community,” explained Gardner.
This point was driven home by a visit from Mayor of Cedar Rapids, Rob Corbett. The students gathered for a Q&A with Corbett and asked questions like ‘what do you do in your free time?’ and ‘what made you run for office?’. From this, the girls learned a lot about his position including the volume of constituents he is responsible for and the issues faces everyday.
The most poignant piece of information learned by these girls, however, was not about Corbett, but how they could get involved. According to student Luwize Ndihokubwayo, “when someone asked him the question of, ‘what can we do, where can we put our ideas?’ He said we could email him. I think that would get us even closer to getting stuff done.” These girls learned that being small doesn’t mean you have a small voice.
Barker and Corbett encouraging them to write their local officials validated their opinions to such a degree that some of the students now aspire to become mayor. From this one assignment, these twelve-year-olds became cognizant residents of their own communities.
“A lot of kids… they’ll have a really good idea, but they’ll say, ‘oh I don’t have a chance of this happening, so I’ll just stop.’ They’ll forget about it. So when they do something like this [essay], they will remember their idea,” said Ndihokubwayo.
Through this essay, these girls got a better grasp of their community, began thinking critically and communicated with a city official all while developing their writing and editing skills. Their main take-away though, as said by Gardner: “I learned that one little thing, if you change it, makes a big difference.”