It’s not unusual for second grade students at schools like Park to tackle a “biography” project – an age-appropriate challenge centered on reading, research skills, writing, and presentation. For many years, Park Grade 2 students would choose a historical figure to research and write about, choosing from the familiar list of “history makers” – most of whom were white men, with little focus on people from underrepresented groups.
Recognizing, however, the missed opportunity to expand student learning to include historical and contemporary figures whose lives and accomplishments may not be captured in mainstream history lessons, Park’s Grade 2 project has evolved significantly, and continues to evolve year to year. Beginning with the help of Lower Division teacher Carly Ellis (currently serving in Park’s library) and former Park teacher Kat Callard, and continuing with the collaboration of librarian Christian Porter, and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Alile Eldridge, the project continues to support the same essential skill-building while exposing students to a wide array of figures who may provide new windows and mirrors for students seeking to see the impact of people like themselves. The basic skills the project teaches and reinforces remain consistent–research, writing, and learning presentation skills – but now the students also gain awareness and build connection to figures who have contributed to or devoted their lives to doing something uplifting and good for society in general.
The Grade 2 team, comprised of Peter Bown, Sophia DiNinni, Virginia Goodwin, and Sarah Smith, reconsiders the recommended figures each year with an eye on how they can improve the learning experience. The list seeks to include many figures that students will have heard of and many they may not know. It includes historical figures – Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks – and contemporary figures like Greta Thunberg, Sonya Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The choices are categorized into “leaders,” “activists,” “inventors,” “athletes,” “designers,” and “explorers.” The team is constantly asking what best qualifies someone for inclusion, and each year, the list is tweaked, some names removed, and others added.
Recently, the team has added figures like Amanda Gorman, Misty Copeland, and Jackie Robinson – people who broke barriers. The teachers think deeply about what they want students to take from this work, with their support. The team seeks to include someone each of their students can identify with while also challenging students to think more deeply about identity – their own and that of others. Using an identity wheel to help students think about the parts of their identity that impact their lives – in both challenging and uplifting ways–they help students consider how differences in ability might affect someone. What about religion, race, culture, or age? Investigating the stories of these various figures helps students see how these identities shape and challenge an individual’s experience.
The project launches every year with a letter to families explaining the project, its goals, and the process. The Grade 2 team remains thoughtful and proactive in guiding students through the process. Sometimes, tricky topics or vocabulary may arise depending on the research subject. For example, students may encounter themes of discrimination and bigotry. Their teachers work to introduce the vocabulary that will be important for students to understand, as well as the questions of identity they may encounter. They share definitions of ideas like abolition, ageism, and ableism so that students have some exposure to these topics before students dive into their research.
Peter Bown shares, “We talk about what being a ‘changemaker’ means to us and what it means to have an impact. We want them to choose someone they’re excited about, but we also push them to new learning by not picking the most recognizable choice!” Once each student has finalized their choice, the Grade 2 team, in partnership with Park’s librarians, helps them access age-appropriate books and online resources at their reading level. They learn about their subjects’ lives and work to build out their research and prepare their speeches.
Students then write their speeches from the “I” perspective, keeping the learning as close and personal as possible. The teachers guide students to consider props and costumes, always reminding them to respect themselves and the people they represent. Students might, for example, have props or elements of a costume to represent someone, but they wouldn’t try to represent themselves as a different race.
Finally, the Changemakers project culminates on a day when families are invited to come to the classroom and hear the speeches – each of which is generally 2-3 minutes long. There is excitement in the air as Grade 2 students see their parents and guardians walk into their classrooms. They have been preparing their speeches and presentations for weeks!
Sarah Smith, who comes from a theater education background, observes, “When students are giving a speech as someone else, stepping into their shoes, and bringing them to life, we encourage them to think about how their subjects felt. Adding that perspective helps them practice empathy fundamentally by having them experience life as someone different.” It’s a great experience in public speaking, which can be challenging for some students and comes naturally to others. The performance gives students a taste of what it is like to be vulnerable in a way they may not have experienced before and to get on stage in front of parents and peers. It is Sophia DiNinni’s first year at Park, and she was proud to see the end product come to life, “Everyone took the time to make their performance unique and each student comes away proud after performing their Changemaker speech.”
Parents and guardians had the chance to live vicariously through the journey of discovery with their children. Grade 2 parent Helen Wang commented that her child “came home daily with an eye-opening nugget of information about his changemaker. We saw the thoughtful work done to prepare students for the presentation and were moved by the level of detail and how the teachers dug deeply into concepts with sensitivities. The presentation was adorable and fun to watch, but seeing our children be brave in front of their classmates and deliver materials they felt passionate about was inspiring.”
Follow-up conversations from the Changemaker project include asking students how they want to be changemakers themselves. As we have seen with people like Greta Thunberg, you don’t have to be a grown-up to make change happen! In researching the experience of someone we call a Changemaker, students see they can have that power too. Gini Goodwin uses the final days of the project to ask students what they can do to change their own actions once they are able to empathize with another person’s experience. “We know life isn’t fair to everyone and if you sit back and not do something,nothing will change. I want my students to know that even though they are young, they can make a difference, and I encourage them to use their voices as much as possible.”
The Grade 2 team continues to evolve this milestone project, building on this snapshot from the 2022-2023 year, to teach appropriate and essential second grade skills with the following goals in mind: to have students walk in the shoes of another, reinforce student voice, independence, and pride in their work.
By Emma Hobart-Sheran, Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications and Suzy Akin, Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications.