How do you teach children to do good — and to really learn something authentic from the experience?
Carol Gannon, a fifth-grade general studies teacher at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, Mich., has been doing it for years. She’s employed project-based learning with a service component for nearly two decades, working to inspire her students to reach out to those in need.
The curriculum works like this: Children embrace a cause and then make decisions and problem-solve about how to help. They raise money and then go beyond, leaving school and connecting with people they want to help.
Here’s a post I wrote a recent project by Gannon’s students, who chose to reach out to American veterans.
By Ruth Ebenstein
How do you teach your fifth-grade students to care about something? How do you model reaching out to someone who could benefit greatly from the human touch?
These are some of the questions that guide the thinking of Carol Gannon, a fifth-grade general studies teacher at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. She wants to impart to her 10- and 11-year-old students the importance of service, the axiom of volunteering and caring for others. And she wants to do so in an authentic way.
“You cannot make teaching authentic unless you do something that’s part of real life,” Gannon said.
On one recent day, the lesson plan circled around one particular community: hospitalized veterans.
February 12-18 marked National Salute to Veteran Patients, a week-long tribute to hospitalized veterans at all of the 172 Veterans Administration medical centers across the country. More than 98,000 veterans of the U.S. armed services are cared for every day in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers, outpatient clinics, domiciliaries, and nursing homes. One such hospital, the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, is located just five miles north of the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor’s campus. A major tertiary care referral center for veterans in the lower peninsula of Michigan and northwestern Ohio, the facility serves more than 68,000 individual patients a year.
Under the stewardship of the fifth-grade class, the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor had chosen this year to embrace veterans in their community, and in particular, the neighboring VA hospital. The fifth-graders had rallied the entire school community to raise funds for gift cards to grocery stores, fuzzy lap blankets, T-shirts, puzzle books, and food.
Students from kindergarten through fifth grade wanted to honor the service of men and women with handmade cards, beyond the traditional greetings of Veterans Day. And so the theme of authentic learning spread through every classroom. All of the students knew that their writing had a purpose: these cards were to be opened and read by real people. Even the kindergartners labored over every letter, knowing that their words would have an impact on someone else.
The children carefully chose words to capture their gratitude for vets. Colored markers in hand, each student decorated his or her personal message with image and color. The result was a homemade pile of patriotism and appreciation. A love offering.
Selected to spruce up the white envelopes and deliver the cards were the fifth-graders. They drew bright red hearts, multi-colored peace signs, stars, rainbows and bright funny faces. They loaded several cars with packages. As the children rode along a winding, tree-lined street en route to the VA hospital, they discussed strategies for approaching people they didn’t know. To whom should they give the cards? How should they break the ice? Palpable was their excitement, nervousness, and hesitation. Arms piled with packages almost larger than them, they shuffled into the building, shy smiles on many faces.
Logos from all of the military units lined the walls. All eyes turned to the white welcome banner hanging on the wall: VA Ann Arbor Health Care System Welcomes Veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Troops, Veterans and Families. Out the window, snow-capped evergreens.
“These veterans gave so much to our country,” mused Yuval Gottstein, 10. He seemed to be speaking for all of them.
It was time to begin passing out the cards.
Evyatar Eliav, 11, walked over to a wheelchair-bound man.
“Are you a vet?” asked Evyatar.
“I am,” nodded the man. Evyatar handed him a card. Their eyes locked. They exchanged smiles.
“Thank you for your service,” said Evyatar.
The vet looked down at the bright-colored envelope, eyes sparkling at the tapestry of color.
“There’s a card in there, too!” prompted Evyatar.
And then there was a flurry of activity. Children approached vets. Cards and more cards. Smiles and more smiles.
Wow! A handmade card! And who sent these sweet children to brighten our day?
“The vet I met was so nice,” gushed Eliana Adler, 10. “He reminded me of my Grandpa Jim!”
What was the story behind each vet? What sacrifices had each one made to protect us?
After a while, all the cards were gone. The care packages were all delivered. Every child’s face was flushed.
Back in the classroom, Gannon asked her students to reflect on their afternoon.
“I enjoyed giving the cards to the veterans — they looked (and probably felt) so happy and probably surprised to receive cards,” wrote Samantha Caminker, 11. “I felt really proud to be spending time with them.”
On the roster of lessons learned: how to approach a grown-up you don’t know, how to raise money for a cause you believe in. And also these: the importance of volunteering. The power of a handmade, heartfelt card. The beauty and treasure of human contact.
The goal of the National Salute to Veteran Patients is to increase community awareness of the VA medical center and encourage citizens to get involved and volunteer. The students at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor are getting a head start.
And now for an authentic learning lesson that reaches beyond elementary school:
“Don’t wait for Valentine’s Day, Veterans Day or any other special day to bring you in the doors of a VA Hospital,” said Gannon. “National Salute to Veterans should be on our minds 365 days a year.”
That’s a good reminder for even this middle-aged mom to keep our vets close to the heart.
Ruth Ebenstein is an American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker and health activist. She is writing a memoir entitled “Ibtisam and I: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.” Follow her on Facebook at Laugh Through Breast Cancer and on Twitter .
This article first appeared in the Answer Sheet section of the Washington Post.