In years past, 2nd Graders at Fieldston Lower have engaged with a unit dedicated to changemakers throughout history, anchored around Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. This year, however, the study of changemaking and activism is a year-long focus, integrated into the wider curriculum.
The study of individual activists — César Chávez, Delores Huerta, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sonia Sotomayor, to name a few — provides a foundation for the students to take on their own activism. Through these historical figures, students learn key vocabulary around activism, and principles like nonviolence.
From there, students are encouraged to follow their own specific interests and isolate the issues about which they are most passionate. 2nd Graders are fascinated by a myriad of topics, and popular areas of interest include general topics like climate change, ocean pollution, homelessness, animal rights, or specific issues like conservation efforts around red pandas.
Once students have selected an issue, they become experts in order to more effectively make change. Students set to work learning how to use Google to find age-appropriate articles on their topics, honing their research skills to gain a thorough understanding and expertise. They also work on writing and thinking critically about their chosen issue, crafting written responses to what they’ve learned.
Students interview each other on their chosen topics, and write scripts together — six feet apart — to present their findings. They also make their own props, cutting microphones out of construction paper or using objects found at home. “It was really hands on, progressive stuff,” says Sydney Beres ’14, 2nd Grade Teacher.
A major project the 2nd Grade undertook was a series of awareness campaigns using their research and new expertise. They set about creating posters to hang throughout the School, educating the community about their issues. They continue to hang in Fieldston Lower, providing an accessible entry point to passersby to a variety of critical issues.
“I picked these animals because some of them are endangered, and some are very cute,” says Zoi M. ’31, standing in front of her poster.
Cora S. ’31, displaying her poster proudly, gives a sense of process: “I drew stuff and printed stuff,” she says of her mixed-media collage.
Milani P. ’31 offers some education based on her brand of chosen activism: “You can be vegan which means you don’t eat meat or animals,” she says. Her poster makes the case for making food choices that are in line with animal rights.
The students delight in seeing their work reach their community: Cora recently watched as 3rd Graders read her poster aloud. “She got to see someone reading about it and talking to their friends about it, and that was really powerful,” Beres says.
Building on the curriculum around activism, the 2nd Grade embarked on a service project that involved the entire Fieldston Lower community this winter. In 2nd Grade Teacher Melanie Corcino’s pod, students noticed that there were leftover snacks each day. “The students wanted to do something tangible,” Corcino says. “They wanted to take action.” Her students wrote Fieldston Lower Principal Joe McCauley a letter with a proposal: They would collect the leftover snacks from their classrooms at the end of each week — and the rest of the classrooms around Fieldston Lower — and deliver the snacks to a local homeless shelter.
McCauley wrote back that the idea was admirable, but unfortunately not feasible given COVID-19 safety protocols. But McCauley had another idea: Why didn’t the 2nd Graders get involved with the P+T’s annual coat drive benefiting the neighboring Nelson Avenue Family Residence?
The whole 2nd Grade jumped into action, creating a spread-the-word campaign. They made posters in English and Spanish and produced a series of videos. Ashley Balmy, 2nd Grade Assistant Teacher, notes that undertaking was an opportunity to practice teamwork, and became a study in “performance with persuasion to get the information out to the masses.” The campaign included script-writing, casting, and filming. The campaign worked: The coat drive was hugely successful. For the 2nd Graders, it was a masterclass in mobilizing their community.
“Clearly there’s a history of activism at Fieldston Lower,” Corcino says, “but this year is unique.” She points out that students may be taking part in the groundswell of grassroots activism happening all over the country, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
“They were so ready for this,” 2nd Grade Teacher Monique Astengo-Rosen says. “They may be young — they may be seven or eight years old, but what’s important to all of us is that they really feel empowered.”
To make clear to the students that age need not be a barrier to change, the 2nd Grade team spent two weeks introducing their students to the work of young changemakers — teenagers and the 2nd Graders’ peers. A featured six-year-old who collected hats, mittens, dishes, TVs, mattresses, and beds for a homeless shelter was especially noteworthy to the students, and galvanized them to examine their own strengths and abilities.
Part of preparing these young students for active community engagement is to integrate the principles of activism into their daily routines. If a student requests help, for example, they may be commended for “advocating” for themselves — a skill critical to activism work. And the switch to a year-long study is critical: Activism becomes a framework for all instruction instead of a special event.
This education in activism has made a profound impact on the students’ lives both on and off campus. One student started collecting recyclables and using the money earned to stock community fridges, while another student is at work putting together a sidewalk sale and will donate the proceeds to red panda conservation efforts.
“When they find a need in their community,” Astengo-Rosen says, “they have the courage and experience and inspiration to go a little bit deeper and wider — to ask: What’s the next step.”
In keeping with the ECFS mission of developing agents of change, the 2nd Grade are primed to take their skills out into their communities. It’s work that continues inside the classroom and out, and will continue to influence these students as they grow into engaged, empowered changemakers.