Recently I decided to teach my fourth graders about the Flint water disaster. I wanted to offer them information, let them come to their own conclusions and then decide together how to act. I learned that empowering children think critically and take action can be as simple as pausing the curriculum for a day, looking at the news and engaging in some real world problem solving.
My students were shocked and appalled by what they learned. They asked questions about lead, about how drinking water can get contaminated, about how many children were affected, about how could a government do that to people, and if the water looked so dirty why wasn’t it tested in the first place. After learning that GM managed to switch its water supply early on, and that state officials had access to clean water throughout the crisis, one student raised her hand and said,” I don’t understand. Government is supposed to help people and take care of them not make them sick. Their job is to protect people. Why would they do this?” Later, one of the girls said “when [yes, when] I run for president I would make sure that everyone gets clean water and people like Governor Snyder who just care about money are fired.”
After giving them time to explore their feelings and questions, I then asked what they thought we could do to help. They had so many ideas- from fundraising, to letter writing campaigns to teaching our school community about lead. In one 45 minute period, I saw critical thinking, creativity and problem solving- all those elusive 21st century skills that no amount of close reading will produce.
Here is some of what they did.
I am so, so proud of them- of their questioning, their compassion and their determination to help. Not only were they thoughtful and empathetic in their responses to what they learned, but also, they went above and beyond anything I asked of them.
Over 30 fourth graders gave up their recess and lunch to continue working on these flyers, posters and letters. Many children took their letters and projects home to finish. One group of students independently collected 150 dollars at a school event. Whats more, multiple students in each class offered to send their allowance or birthday money to people in Flint. These are not kids with money to spare.
Hats off to them.