When Student- Driven Action Becomes the Curriculum

In a previous post called Rethinking Classroom Design to Build a Culture of Problem Solving, I wrote about how a colleague and I changed how we thought about the beginning of the school year. In this post, I write about the same group of students several months into the year and what can happen when foundations of independent thinking, solving problems, and taking action are established as integral parts of a classroom culture. 


One ordinary day, several of my students came to class in a huff. They had watched the news the night before and were very upset regarding a local story from SeaWorld about a trainer being killed by one of the orcas. Knowing my students, and realizing that we weren’t going to be able to get to anything I had planned until they got their feelings out, we discussed what they heard on the news. Then I asked them what they wanted to do about it.


We had been spending a lot of time talking about taking action and how students can use their voice to create change, so they decided that they wanted to write letters to SeaWorld to let them know they were very upset about what happened to the trainer. It wasn’t just a couple of students either. The ones who came in upset shared their knowledge of the story with their classmates and convinced them that letter writing was the way to go. They didn’t complain. They all participated. The students diligently wrote for the first part of the morning. I didn’t have to do anything to keep them on task, but I did answer their questions about proper formatting and helped them with what they wanted to say. While they wrote, I wrote my own letter and found the correct address. I explained that my students were the ones that had initiated this action and that I did not edit any of the letters or remove any content. These were the words of the students. I collected all of the handwritten letters, put my own on top, and sent the large manilla envelope out with the afternoon mail. I didn’t think anything of it, and I was proud of my students for not only watching the news but for being passionate about something to form an opinion and share it with the company.


Months went by, and I had forgotten about the letters. We had moved on to other things, other inquiries and actions. It was enough for the students to get their feelings out and have a voice even if it wasn’t answered. But it was answered. In passing, my principal asked me if I had sent some letters to SeaWorld. I told her I had, and I soon found out that my principal had received a phone call. During that phone call, she was informed that our class had been invited on a backstage tour of their facilities or SeaWorld representatives could come visit us at school to answer the students' questions. Since it was my group of students who initiated the whole thing, she left that decision up to us. The only caveat was that we would have to pay for our own bus transportation if we decided to take them up on their offer of a backstage tour. 


Needless to say, they were beyond excited when their principal told them the news. Their excitement, however, quickly funneled into problem-solving when they began to weigh their options. Whatever I had planned for the rest of the day quickly evaporated into a flurry of planning, but I was thrilled. The beginning of the year had come full circle, and they were off and running with very little direction from me.


The option they wanted was obviously a trip to SeaWorld, but that needed to include calculating how much a school bus would cost. So they went to the office to find out. The bookkeeper gave them a field trip worksheet that the teachers used to determine the cost for a full day including gas, time frame, etc. Then they figured out how much it would cost per student. I had 20 students at the time. The numbers weren’t looking good. The free trip wasn’t so free anymore. As they were trying to decide how to make the trip work, one student suggested that if they invited the neighboring class to go with them, it would cut their bus cost in half. Since we had been working so closely together all year, it made perfect sense. It was a true collaboration in action. Students brainstormed ways that they could earn the money instead of asking their parents to pay. They devised all sorts of individual plans and group plans that would take place after school. I helped when they asked me, but they didn’t need much. They had been preparing all year for a real task like this, and I was thrilled that it had fallen into my lap.



In deciding how to earn the money, the topic of fairness came up. Was it fair that everyone could go if each person didn’t earn enough money? That question was worked through and they decided that everyone deserved to go, and they would each do what they could to help reach their target. Within just a couple days the target had been reached, and the trip was organized. I was pleasantly surprised again when the students told me the ways they had earned the money. Some did extra chores around the house, some looked in between couch cushions, but the one that impressed me the most was the student who made robot art out of garbage and sold it to his neighbors. I think he made the most money out of everyone.



The day of the trip had finally arrived, and there was an excited buzz among the two classes. We had a full day that started with a guided tour of the facilities. We got to see where the animals go when they get sick and how and where the food is prepared. Most importantly, however, the students got to ask the questions they had been wondering about for so long. 


They had all decided ahead of time that they were not going to go on any of the rides because they were there on an educational mission. They wanted to find out answers to their questions and learn more about the animals. They also decided that they wanted to share what they learned with younger students in the school when they got back. They had no time for rides and roller coasters. Again, this was their decision. I merely posed the question. At the end of a full day, we asked the students if they had been satisfied with what they saw and heard. Most said that they were content with what they had learned, and their questions had been answered. But there was one boy who was very happy about the trip, and he said that it was really nice that SeaWorld invited them to come, but he wasn’t sure if he believed everything they said. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a critical thinker on our hands.


This whole experience was about a lot more than a trip to SeaWorld. It was an exercise in action and authentic, integrated learning. These students learned that when you decide that you don’t agree with something, you can do something about it. There may be planning and work involved, but good can come from it. We covered every subject area and more standards than I cared to count. More importantly, they learned that their voices mattered and that they should be taken seriously. 


Student voice has become a hot topic in education and for good reason. It makes us think about the purpose of education and who we are teaching our students to become. Do we want a society full of rule followers who do as they're told and sit quietly? Or do we want a society of thinkers and doers who question things when they feel wrong and use their voice to help others improve the world? To me, the latter is the only option. We can't afford to sit silently by as greed and apathy become the norm. What an incredible opportunity we have as teachers to help young people grow as learners, as thinkers, and as problem solvers. What an amazing thing it is to help a child realize that she has power to do good in the world. And isn't that what education is all about? 


By Erin Dowd



Let's keep the conversation going...

What are the moments where you have learned with your students or they cared about something so much, they wouldn't rest until they did something about it? 

What do you think about inviting action into your classroom?