A letter from a student to Spring Lake Park City Hall last year asking why the city doesn’t have more ice rinks had the mayor showing up at the student’s doorstep.
The mayor explained in person that the city didn’t have the money to maintain the rinks.
The surprise visit was prompted by a sixth-grade social studies assignment at Westwood Middle School.
Sixth-grade students, about 400 of them in total, at WWMS are getting a first-hand douse of civics reality in their social studies classrooms. Rather, make that outside of their classrooms.
“We want them to understand that as a citizen, you have a responsibility,” said Bob Schneider, one of three sixth-grade teachers at the school, along with Chris Clark and Dominic Martini, who assign their students the sixth-grade civics participation project every fall.
Thanks to the project, kids are more actively involved in the community. They perform service projects or seek to understand how local government bodies operate. Some ask family members to join in.
A glimpse into a local school board or city council meeting might find 12- and 13-year-olds sitting in the audience, listening to proceedings, taking notes.
Their parents are usually sitting right beside them. Last year about 50 students chose the meetings assignment, according to Schneider.
Earlier this month sixth-graders Sam Gibson and Elijah Coleman sat in on a Spring Lake Park School Board meeting.
“I learned what they (the district) thought about iPads and college readiness,” Sam said.
In its third year at WWMS, the assignment can take anywhere from weeks to two months to complete.
“I think it’s amazing, especially when the students are first getting to middle school,” said Martini, in his second year at the school and of assigning the project. “We give them all these options. The final decision is up to them.”
Instead of learning from books, students get a broader picture of why things are done the way they are. It also takes the focus from them and shines a light on helping others, Martini said.
As part of their assignment, students may choose to do joint activities, such as a park cleanup or volunteering at Feed My Starving Children in Coon Rapids. Or they might write letters to the editor or to local and state legislators. Some write letters to the White House asking about education.
“The kids are always excited about that,” Schneider said, adding the responses have been standard.
“I think what the kids get a real kick out of is their letter is on White House stationery and signed by the president.”
In addition to attending government meetings, students can volunteer at their churches or at school functions. Earlier this year, students registered participants in Spring Lake Park District 16’s Panther Foundation annual 5K walk/run.
Those opting to analyze a local government meeting with no way to get there, can do so in the comfort of their own homes. They can watch proceedings via cable TV.
Running for student council is another assignment option.
For those entrepreneurial students wanting something a bit different, they create their own projects. One student last year collected piles of coats to donate to those in need.
This year, a student collected blankets for pets to donate to the Animal Humane Society.
Still picking up
As a follow-up to the project, students fill out a questionnaire. They are asked to describe their assignment, explain their participation and describe evidence of organization.
“I had one student come back and say they used Robert’s Rules of Order,” Schneider said, perhaps, a bit of information he gleaned from his parent who attended a school board meeting with his or her child.
When Dylan Hering, 12, walks home from school, every day he finds himself picking up two or three pieces of trash. A disintegrating Fritos bag. A plastic, half-filled beverage bottle. His efforts are a throwback to his civics project.
Now a seventh-grader at Westwood, Dylan recalls his civics assignment from last year.
He and fellow sixth-grader Eric Carlson enlisted the help of their families to clean up Sanburnol Park in Spring Lake Park.
They had picked up trash at the park when they were in elementary school. But that was only sporadically for 10 minutes or so. And it was with their entire class. The WWMS civics project was a greater undertaking. The boys were in charge.
In all, the boys and their families collected about eight large bags of trash at the park. They cleaned a children’s baseball field and along the fence. They picked up litter under the bleachers.
“I learned how much we litter and our civic responsibilities – that people don’t clean up after themselves,” Dylan said. “I see how much people leave their stuff and don’t care. It’s really gross.”
This year for their project, sixth-grader Gabrielle Doyle decided to clean up Blaine’s Radisson Woods Park with fellow classmate Hannah Stewart.
After four days of pulling weeds, raking, picking up sticks and trash, Gabrielle felt a sense of community pride for their work, she said.
“It makes it a better place to play instead of being poked by sticks,” she said.
People bringing their kids to the park commented on how nice the park looked.
“I probably would do it again because it feels really good to help out,” Gabrielle said.
Among family members who pitched in for the girls’ clean-up project, Gabrielle enlisted the help of her mother, Ashley Doyle.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Ashley said. “It teaches and shows the kids that they need to be an active part of our community.”
Schneider said he wishes he could track students’ civic involvements 10 years down the road after they have left his classroom. Students voting at a higher rate would translate into success, Schneider said. Or, perhaps, some might run for a seat on the school board or city council.
“My chest would probably burst with pride,” Schneider said.
Elyse Kaner is at firstname.lastname@example.org