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Service Learning Project Benefits Community

Written by BMS teacher Hari Berzins. This article originally appeared in the Floyd Press on February 26, 2015.

The early learning class at Blue Mountain School, comprised of 5- to 7-year-olds and otherwise known as the Hatching Playful Dragons, recently completed a service learning project that benefited not only the school community but also many other neighbors in Floyd.  

The project began last December. The Dragons asked their families to gather items they no longer needed from around the house, and these items were used to create a little store in the school’s conference room. As shopkeepers, the Dragons were responsible for pricing each item and writing out the price tags. “We decided to keep the prices under a dollar, so the kids could bring in one dollar for each of the people on their holiday list and be able to purchase a gift for everyone,” said teacher Hari Berzins. “The idea for this project came to me while I was thinking about how we could incorporate the holidays into our classroom and also service learning. The students wanted to contribute to our community and help our neighbors.”

The Dragons were also the store’s main customers. “When the holidays come around it’s common for children to make lists of things they want, but I wanted them to experience the joy of making a list of people they wanted to give to,” said Berzins. “The Hatching Playful Dragons are learning to read and write, so this list making was great practice in “stretching out words” and giving the students a real-life writing task in which they were fully invested and engaged.”

As the store’s customers, the Dragons practiced writing and reading their own writing for a purpose and in their roles as the shopkeepers they gained real-life practice in writing their numbers and valuing items. “It was interesting to watch the progression of the pricing project. The first day the kids gave such random prices. There were a few identical vases and one was tagged with $.27 and another with $.10. I used this as a natural way to teach valuation and asked, ‘Why would someone pay more for this vase than this one?’ Then—‘How much more is this vase than
this one?’” This integrated math activity was full of incredibly engaged learners. When the numbers were written backwards or hard to read, the kids helped each other to notice and correct these mistakes. This number writing practice is exactly what the Dragons needed. It created an opportunity to write numbers over and over, with a purpose. The students were fully engaged, and it was magical.”

Excitement was in the air the day the store opened. As the Dragons arrived at school, they had great energy, pockets stuffed with shopping lists and money, and enthusiasm for their project. Once the store opened, back up staffers had to be called in to help the students calculate their totals and check out. BMS Office Manager Carol Volker said, “I have never seen a group of people so excited to spend their money! I had a difficult time keeping up with these kids, but thankfully a few of them pitched in to help me make change for their friends. I couldn’t get the grin off my face all day.” After everyone the Dragons were done with their shopping, the store was opened to the rest of the school. What fun it was for these young students to act as shop keepers for the older kids!

In the end, the store earned $110. Since the goal was to raise money for neighbors who might need a little extra help, Ms. Berzins contacted Plenty! after winter break to arrange a field trip to learn about how this organization helps the people in our community help each other.

The folks at Plenty! organized a great presentation for the Hatching Playful Dragons and the parents and staff members who accompanied them. Students felt welcome the moment they arrived. “I thought we’d have a
quick look around and be done, but Karen and Jonathan really took the time to explain the work they were doing in a way the kids could understand and relate to,” said Ms. Volker. Plenty! staff treated the Dragons as customers, gave them a grocery bag, and guided them through a typical shopping experience at the food pantry. Everyone agreed that it was important to have those shelves stocked with the pasta, beans, peanut butter, tuna and other foods to help our neighbors. There was even a shelf for cat and dog food.

Once the students finished their pretend shopping at Plenty!, the group gathered to discuss what they might be able to buy on their real shopping trip at Slaughters to help stock the Plenty! shelves. Several Dragons noticed that there were no cans of tomatoes and the peanut butter was getting low, so those items were put on the list. “But I want to get some cat food, too,” voiced a student from the back of the group. Ever concerned for the animals, Otis Grimsley noticed that the cat food shelf was empty and a bag of cat food was also added to the list.  Classmates Wubi Coldwater, Aden Da'Mes, Milo Grimes, Cedar Heartway, Casey Newitt, Loic Prudner, Teja Reygle, and Avery Smith

At the end of the day, the class returned to Plenty! to present their donations. Karen Day made an entry in her logbook, adding “The Hatching Playful Dragons, Blue Mountain School, 28 lbs. of peanut butter, 23 lbs. of tomatoes, and 14 lbs. of cat food.”

“The store project that teachers Hari Berzins and June Kelly helped guide is a great example of progressive education in action,” says Blue Mountain School Director Shelly Fox Emmett. “Teachers and parents often want children this age to learn reading and writing and basic math skills. Children this age also are often interested in learning these things,
but usually they also still place a high priority on play. So incorporating reading, writing, and math skills into a real-life project that still allows kids to be playful and have input on it’s design is the ultimate goal of a progressive classroom. To prove that play and learning go hand-in-hand, the students in this class learned more from this project than we expected them to, because they were fully engaged in the project and it was meaningful for them.”

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