Tools of Collaboration: Empowering Children to Become Active Participants in Their World
by Juliane Laskowski, Rosaruth Palmer, & Josh Patterson, PhD
Author Janet Robertson said, “Engaging with children in troublesome thinking is problematic, but important. Ignoring the hard stuff and only engaging in the fluff and fun from curriculum choices is to keep underground issues of social justice and to further silence and compound the inequity.” As educators, we often find ourselves face-to-face with the monstrous world that surrounds our students. Furthermore, our students, often innocent and unknowing, bring these blatant and subtle challenges into the classroom. Issues such as gender and race relations, systemic oppression, lack of community resources, and abuse of power and people are daunting concepts to discuss with children. Teachers can either choose to ignore these complex social issues or they can support their students by helping them navigate the challenges they may face.
While discussions surrounding social justice may be more present in middle and high school, this important conversation should begin in earlier years. In the very first week of school, a mini-unit incorporated the establishment of classroom expectations, community building, STEM, and a Patricia Polacco author study. With shared experiences in the design process and the identification of problems and solutions in Polacco’s texts, students in two fourth grade classes created “Tools of Collaboration.” This start-of-year, introductory unit sought to help students find their passion for creative and scientific inquiry, while connecting issues of social justice evident in today’s society.
Day One: Students participated in a popular STEM activity called “Help Harry.” This activity required students to work in groups, share materials, and listen to one another. Afterwards, students evaluated their group’s success on collaborative concepts such as active participation, positivity, and remaining focused. Students were asked to determine the factors that attributed to their initial “Tools of Collaboration.” Responses to guiding questions such as “What actions helped you work together? What words did you use?” were recorded on an anchor chart. This activity was paired with Polacco’s Junkyard Wonders, an appropriate segue to the importance of social justice with elementary-appropriate topics such as bullying, individuals with disabilities, and furthering a cause.
Day Two: Students met to extend their “Tools of Collaboration” by discussing how these tools were similar to other familiar expectations. They discussed which expectations were most important and narrowed the list to four norms:
1. Everyone participates and collaborates
2. Everyone shows PRIDE (our school’s PBIS acronym: Positivity, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy)
3. Everyone is kind and helpful
4. Listen and responds the first time
Students were involved throughout the process of developing classroom expectations. With positive reinforcement, this will encourage greater self-accountability of expectations throughout the year.
On the same day, students developed an egg drop contraption. The task required students to create a prototype that would keep the egg safe WHILE using the “Tools of Collaboration.” Students worked over the next two days for an estimated total of one hour. In ELA, students read An A from Miss Keller and continued to identify and discuss problems in today’s society. Students also wrote and shared a personal problem they encountered in their own lives.
Day Three: Students read a mentor text about an eleven-year-old scientist who invented a device to test the amount of lead as a response to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Students embraced the role of social activist, identifying problems they saw in their own community. Students listed problems such as child abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse, homicide, trespassing, littering and pollution, and poverty. Using Wonderopolis.org, students spent time researching the problem(s) they wanted to address. Students also read My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother. This text helped students see how their families and communities can be a powerful ally in the face of adversity.
Day Four and Five: After allowing time to work on their egg drop contraption, students tested and made final adjustments. Adhering to a specified time limit encouraged students to problem solve and resolve disagreements productively as they constructed their prototype. STEM provides an authentic opportunity for students to work through problems.
Most student groups achieved success in the STEM challenge. Afterward, students reflected on their success through writing and discussion. They considered the strengths of their contraption and how well their group utilized the “Tools of Collaboration.” As part of their reflection, students were introduced to the Next Gen standards for engineering. The class dissected each of the three standards and re-worded them into student-friendly concepts. Then, they reflected on how the activity addressed each standard and the importance of thinking and acting as engineers and scientists, acknowledging the importance of reflection and revision in any scientific (or social) endeavor.
In ELA, students read Mr. Lincoln’s Way with their principal and discussed how social injustice can plague generations, how perceptions are often wrong, and how we can influence positive change in society. Students were then asked to come up with (sketch, label, and describe) a device or invention that would address the needs of the problem they previously identified. For example, many students walk home from school. One student suggested that bookbags could have small tracking devices to prevent kidnapping. (Depending on time, students can dig deeper, and research answers to questions such as, “What are the components of a tracking device?” and “How does GPS work?”)
Together, we accomplished a lot our first five days of school! Student discussion was relevant and purposeful, setting the precedent for future discussion about social issues. Students collaborated and celebrated one another through meaningful STEM projects while also putting into practice the understanding that they could be agents of change.
All students will inevitably face hardship, anxiety, or fear. Generally, children are resilient; however, unless they see possibilities, have hope, and understand the importance of their own voice, they will succumb to believe the unfortunate lies often spoken in our society. The work of educators exceeds that of curriculum standards. Educators have an incredible influence to not only assuage their students’ worries and fears but can also empower students with a voice that ultimately ensures a more equitable world.
- The Hechinger Report – How social studies can help young kids make sense of the world
- The Atlantic – The Case for Contentious Curricula
- Education Week – Q&A Collections: Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning