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First Grade Changemakers

How two teachers helped their students develop empathy, teamwork, leadership, and initiative.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

December 24, 2012

Sitting in Principal Zoe Duskin’s office, I heard a knock at the door. Duskin and I turned around to find five pairs of eyes looking at us through the glass window facing the hallway. Then first grade teacher Athena Kopsidas lifted a small blue recycling bin into our line of vision: they were making an important delivery. Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School was holding its second Changemaker Day, and the first grade had chosen to put recycling bins in all classrooms and administrative offices.

Kopsidas and Inspired Teaching Fellow Mr. Berg helped their students design their Changemaker Day project by guiding them through topics in the curriculum that interested them. When students showed particular interest in recycling, Kopsidas and Berg read books aloud and facilitated student discussion on how recycling could be incorporated into their project. The students identified a need at Inspired Teaching Demonstartion PCS for recycling bins: the school had just moved to a new location and had not yet been able to set up a recycling program. So the first grade took the initiative to get recycling bins donated and then distribute them to every classroom in the school that needed one.

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According to Mr. Berg, one important lesson that he learned from Changemaker Day is that helping students become changemakers takes a little extra time. While it would have been more efficient for him and Kopsidas to design a service project, taking the extra fifteen minutes to let students have a discussion, identify a need, and work together to take the lead on a project of their own design gives students a sense of efficacy and voice that cannot be fostered in a teacher-centered classroom.  With a little patience, flexibility, and time, students can gain the changemaker skills that will help them succeed throughout their lives.