How do we empower students to think planetarily?

Tycho World Gif

Over April vacation, I taught a class at ¡CityArts! in Providence on “Worldbuilding.” The class was initially presented as an intro to digital art class for elementary and middle school students, but it was undergirded by much larger ambitions. The first sentence of my curriculum proposal read, “in this increasingly unthinkable (almost dystopian) world, it seems more important than ever for young people to think differently about how we live our lives and design alternative worlds.”

The students produced amazingly insightful works commenting on the troubling past, present, and future of the earth. Particularly powerful, was the collaborative piece produced on Earth Day. Students were asked to draw short animated GIFs of how they feel about the world and the problems facing it. We collected the GIFs from every student in the class and assembled them into a online monument, a GIF Wall. The GIF wall shows the whole gamut of emotion from sadness to frustration to anger to contentment to joy. The students had very mixed emotions about the state of the planet, but counter popular conceptions of “millennials,” they never showed apathy.

In the following days, we worked through these confusing emotions. We realized that we wouldn’t be able to collectively solve the worlds problems nor put our worries to rest in one week. Rather we found a shared richness of emotion; we all cared deeply about our worlds. If not the earth or the whole planet, students cared about the largest world they could grasp: their country, their community, their family. Our job as teachers is to expand that horizon. In one lesson on Google Earth, I very literally expanded their horizons; the students gasped when I zoomed out from a satellite image of the ¡CityArts! offices to the city of Providence to New England to the United Stated to the globe, floating in the vast blackness of virtual space. It was like Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, updated for our present era of constant planetary surveillance. I push all my students to think on the biggest possible scales, pushing them towards planetary thinking and beyond.

I have incorporated this mission into every aspect of my Americorps service from my teaching in arts education to the literacy interventions I hold at the Learning Community in Central Falls and Leo A. Savoie Elementary in Woonsocket. The Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) system (taught at both schools) uses many books that dwell on themes like environmental stewardship, ecological protection, and natural beauty. Though these books present these complex themes to the best of their abilities, my students often struggle to reflect on these planetary problems. I think this can be partially attributed to the formulaic rhetoric surrounding environmental education aimed at young people. My students readily recall environmental buzz words like “life cycle,” “ecosystem,” “recycling,” and “global warming” but when asked to say more and explain, students often falter. I think we as teachers have made it too easy for students to give the “right” answer to environmental questions, questions that have no answers and may never have answers. How do we foster the odd mixture of wonder and horror necessary when thinking about the earth and yet still empower students to study, engage, and influence the complex ecologies of this planet?

At the Learning Community, Artemio (Grade 6) has a wealth of wonderings but often gets stuck on his questions. His curiosity enables him to think way beyond the text into large scale understandings. While reading Crabs on the Run, Artemio noticed an informational graphic that showed a huge gap in the life cycle of land crabs. This was due to the lack of scientific research on this particular species of crab. Artemio made the connection that this kind of gap is what prompts further scientific research. This open ended prompt, the call for further study is what students need. To often in schools, science is something received as a complete and closed system. Rather we need to emphasize that people do science; people are need to discover, study, and map the world.

In my year of service, I have seen glimpses of the answer to these puzzling pedagogical questions. Working as a reading teachers, I have struggled to bring to life the complex themes and scientific question presented in our books. I have modified lessons to include larger projects like poster reports and animation studies. I have started to use the simple tool of the Know/Wonder chart (a T chart that encourages students to see the feedback loop between prior knowledge, critical questioning, and learning new information.) Student need to feel empowered, confident in there wonderings, and learn the research tools to answer those aching questions. Going forward, I will continue reflecting on my pedagogical practice, developing lessons and projects in art, science, and literacy that challenge the prescribed boundaries to my students worlds and empower them to think on the largest possible planetary scale, building and rebuilding the future while engaging with the harsh ecological reality of the present.

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Summer Camp Fair at The Learning Community

One of the ways racism is plaguing our country is through our unequal education system. The Learning Community drew me to want to pursue the Middle Grades VISTA position because I wanted to observe the many reasons why the school was so successful given that they had the same demographics of students as surrounding schools. I learned one of the biggest goals we have at The Learning Community is supporting our families and students in all aspects of life inside and outside the classroom. One project that I completed, as a Middle Grades VISTA, was researching summer program opportunities available to our families across Rhode Island. This was an important project to take on because most of our families are low-income and it can be financially hard for families to send our students to summer programming. Secondly, students who attend summer programs tend to retain academic information better over the summer months than students who do not attend.

At first glance, this opportunity seemed like a quick internet search and an excel spreadsheet. But after a few days, that mentality quickly changed. I created a binder full of resources including scholarship applications, registration forms, and various program logistics for over 400 programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The next step was figuring out how to present this overwhelming amount of information to our families and students without sending them home in emotional turmoil. Along with help from staff in the school, I planned a summer opportunities fair showcasing all of our information. I contacted over 60 program providers in hopes that they would attend. Fifteen providers showed up that night to present their programs to our students and families and over 200 families attended. It was a huge undertaking, but an even bigger success. I know that it can be difficult as a VISTA sometimes to see immediate results, but this is one example of what hard work and dedication can bring to the table.

mother and hope camp

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Environmental Stewardship

I am still pleasantly surprised to recall, on my daily commute to work, so many fond memories of my years as a Classical High School student.  During those years, I worked as an office receptionist after school and on the weekends.  Junior year, we were assigned a re-usable energy project in my AP Environmental class.   I quickly realized that I was not a very good environmental steward. It became apparent, neither was the office I worked for.  Well, I thought, “Challenge accepted!”  I took it upon myself to bring it up to the Office Manager, confident she would see the error of our ways and change some of the methods we had in place.   At the time, recycling was considered a radical advancement in the office; one that I supported with the utmost conviction.  After my well-rehearsed “impromptu” declaration of why paper recycling should be put in place, she smiled tenderly at my passion and responded that while she’d like to rid the world of all its toxins, recycling would never work unless everyone decided to get behind it.  And that my friends is when I realized how important it is to make the big decisions for yourself first, because even the biggest movement started at one point with a small few.

A few years ago now, Serve Rhode Island’s Executive Director, Bernie Beaudreau, was walking through the park and wondered about how great it would be for groups to clean up this by-all-other-accounts beautiful park.  Seven years later, groups of community members including AmeriCorps members, politicians, legislators, neighbors, families, college students, youth, and adults of all ages are still coming together on a Saturday morning to clean up their neighborhood park.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental stewardship is the responsibility for environmental quality shared by all those whose actions affect the environment and as a means to a more sustainable future.  As an AmeriCorps VISTA at Serve Rhode Island, I have had the pleasure of seeing how much good one group can do and the movement it can set in motion.  I plan to continue these efforts even after I’ve completed my term, as so many others have, some of whom I met at this year’s cleanup and hope to continue to run into in years to come.  Along with taking care of our community parks, we are building up our AmeriCorps garden, giving way to environmental stewards and community leaders alike every day. Proud Classical alum? Clearly.  AmeriCorps lifer?  Can’t wait to find out….!

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Kiana’s Korner

As the Family Engagement VISTA at The Learning Community Charter School my primary role is to improve the systems for family engagement and to create and implement new systems. As a VISTA it’s often easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, to get lost in the details of your work and not be able to see the impact that your work is making. I was drawn to doing a year of service for AmeriCorps because I wanted to be a part of something meaningful after graduation and before pursuing a graduate degree. No matter what, I knew I wanted to take a year before going back to school, to make some sort of impact, rather than just working a normal 9 to 5 job and going through the motions. Working in close proximity to other AmeriCorps members whose roles are focused on direct service, I’d be lying if I said I never compared my work with theirs. There were times early in my year of service when I would compare the easily visible and quantifiable progress they were making with students with all of the projects I was working on, and wonder if what I was doing was making any difference. Some days I would get bogged down in that mindset, questioning the impact of all that I was doing, but when I took a step back I began to realize just how much I was actually making an impact. Though my project of collecting student and parent birth information seemed tedious, once I took the time to ponder what that information would lead to, the importance of my role became clear. Not only will this work lead to our faculty and teachers having a greater understanding of the demographics of our families, it is also currently being used to implement a series of meetings with the entire school team to learn more about the families, and help engage more families in each classroom. This project has already had amazing results; demonstrating the incredible diversity of our school–we have families from a total of 31 different countries–and also demonstrating the diversity of each classroom. Despite these revelations, I know that there may still be days when I wonder, but I have also come to realize just what I need to do to remind myself of the importance of my position; take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and remember that even small changes can make a big difference.


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Sarah Sams’s Story of Service

At the beginning of the year, I began observing Kindergarten Response to Intervention (RTI) groups, knowing that I was to eventually have a group of my own. RTI groups, I learned, are for students who are just below the reading benchmark to give them small group attention and support to boost their reading level. I spent each of these observations hidden in my notebook, writing down every detail that I could possibly cram in during the lessons. I was both terrified and excited to have my own group.

Just a few weeks later, I had my own group. As I looked at the four Kindergartners sitting across the table from me, my heart beat fast. How would I help to instill language in these students – and what if I hurt them more than helped them? I had certainly never done anything like this before.

I followed my notes as best as I could, but what I soon realized is that teaching requires way more than a few scribbled pages of notes. My notes could not help me figure out the correct way to keep Danelis from shouting out every answer before her classmates had a chance, or how to get Jennifer to be more confident in her answers.

As weeks turned into months, my four Kindergartners and I had become something like a family. During our half an hour together, we counted words, retold stories and practiced rhymes and letters. Although the beginning of the year had seemed slow, suddenly our family knew all 26 letters! However, something still felt daunting to me. How would these seemingly small abilities, turn into reading?

Eventually I decided that it was time to try a book, even though I was terrified of how it would go. Each book had some words we had been practicing on the cover. I took a deep breath and handed them out. Before I could even begin introducing the title, Jennifer pointed to one of the words and said “Look! Was!” I let out my breath and smiled. They truly had been soaking in all of our lessons and they were ready to read.

At the beginning of the year, I was so afraid of hindering the learning of these students. Soon I realized that the students had many teachers besides me: their classroom teachers, families, and the world around them, and most importantly themselves. The students had worked hard to soak in all of the information and had desired to learn. It felt amazing to be a part of something as essential as a student acquiring language.


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Economic Opportunity

Here at The Learning Community, students are given many opportunities. The school has worked to build a great sense of community among students, teachers and families, and we explore together what it means for our community to be reaching for a common goal.

Students are offered free breakfast, lunch and a snack every day at school. I feel this is key for our students to be able to focus and learn throughout the day. The students also have a choice to get dinner in our after school program to help them stay focused and get through their long days at school.

Another great way our school shows economic opportunity is our dress code. All students must wear brand-free clothing and if they do not have access to such we provide them with dark blue pants and light blue shirts. Students must wear the appropriate uniform to school every day. This eliminates any kind of favoritism, or even bullying because of what a student is wearing. There is no debate on who is the “cool kid” because of what a student is wearing.

Our school does a great job giving each of our students the same economic opportunity and I’m so pleased and honored to be a part of it. Here is a picture of some of our smiling faces during lunch time!

lunch pic

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Winter Involvement: Generations of Learning


Our AmeriCorps team at Generations of Learning in Woonsocket has spent the winter thus far doing everything possible to immerse ourselves 100% in our site, Coleman Elementary School.

Our purpose as AmeriCorps members is to do everything possible to be there for our students, and help them to succeed academically.  Our goal is to help provide them with a school environment that is conducive to learning; where they can be themselves, feel safe, and know that the people around them care.

Over the winter break one of our members, lovingly referred to as “Mimi”, painted an amazing mural in the cafeteria of our school.  She is an incredible artist, and the response to her mural was wonderful.  The students were not only excited and fascinated, but grateful.

For our Martin Luther King Jr. Day project, our team spent hours scrubbing down the boys and girls bathrooms outside of the cafeteria.  Mimi also gave the doors a couple of fresh coats of paint, and she even painted plaques on each door for the girls and the boys.  I had quite a few students tell me how much they appreciated everything we did and how beautiful they found the plaques to be.

We are currently in the second session of our after-school program in which our members are offering classes ranging from Robotics and Mad Science, to Movin’ and Groovin’ and Crochet.  Most students are truly enjoying their experiences in the program because it gives them the opportunity to let loose, be kids, and learn amazing things in fun and innovative ways.

It broke my heart not very long ago, when a third grade student approached me to tell me that she wishes her school could afford playground equipment and technology.  She said, “Our school is poor.  It’s hard to say, but it’s true; we’re poor.”  I didn’t know how to respond.

I know that a beautiful mural, clean bathrooms with freshly painted doors, and an enjoyable after school program are not a playground or technology, but I believe that what our AmeriCorps team is doing for Coleman is truly making a difference for these students, and helping them to realize that there are people out there that care about them.  It’s not always an easy job, but it is one that we love doing and will continue to do: for the students.

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