How do you make learning authentic in the elementary grades? Sometimes it just happens naturally. My third-graders were having a “This Day in History” discussion about the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. I happened to see a program the night before about a child who ran from his village in Darfur to the refugee camps in Chad. I used this situation as an example of how UNICEF gets involved in international conflicts. The kids wanted to know more. They also wanted to do something about it. This is how the Darfur website project was born.
The class was divided into groups that included researchers, writers and artists. Everyone had an opportunity to write and reflect. Artists were responsible for all of the artwork on the site.
The website consisted of six major components:
- Learn More: I created an online scavenger hunt with age-appropriate resources to help the children understand the conflict in Darfur. They conducted some additional research on their own. Two student writers synthesized this material and wrote an introduction. The researchers provided links to additional information.
- Listen to our Podcast: We contacted a local volunteer from SaveDarfur.org who agreed to visit the class and respond to interview questions. Each child wrote and asked at least one open-ended interview question. The session was recorded as a podcast and posted on the website.
- Write Letters: Each student wrote a letter to a member of Congress or an international leader asking for their attention to the genocide in Darfur. Two student writers wrote a letter to visitors explaining the importance of awareness.
- Darfur Reflections: Reflection is an important aspect of learning. Each student wrote a paragraph reflecting on the conflict and why it was important to do something about it.
- Give: At the time the website was created, UNICEF had an online gift program. That program has since changed, so it is no longer available on the site. However, there are a number of organizations that continue to provide an online gift option.
- About Us: The kids wanted everyone to realize that they were third-graders. Just because they're young doesn't mean they can't make a difference.
The site went on to raise $6,000 for UNICEF. Two years after the project, students still view it as their favorite school experience.
This project integrated social studies and research skills with various forms of writing (expository, reflective, interview and letter writing). The project was conducted in a class of 19 students with six computers in the classroom. A scanner was used to capture student letters to Congress. There are various free tools available online for creating websites. A wiki is also a great option for this type of project.
ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS•S)
- Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
- Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, and contribute to the learning of others.
- Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate and use information.
- Students use critical-thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
- Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology, and practice legal and ethical behavior.
- Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems and operations.
- Kids Galore Helping Kids in Darfur website
- Resources for Educational Podcasting
- National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
- Teachers First Wiki Walk-Through
Digital projects offer a wide range of grading options. Organization is key. Students were graded individually on components of the Darfur project that required individual submissions (for example, reflections and letters to Congress). All of our writing was assessed using a Six Traits rubric that the students had been using during the year. A project rubric was used to assess overall project participation, ability to work independently as a group without teacher intervention for behavioral issues and quality of work. Each team also had a weekly meeting to discuss participation by identifying who was pulling their weight and who needed to contribute more in the coming week.
- Empower your students to find a cause for which they have a true passion.
- Organize your class into efficient groups. If everyone has a responsibility, you can complete the project in less time and with less impact on your other curricular areas.
- Use a wiki in place of an actual website. Wikis are easy to use, and editing can be limited to your students.
- Don't be afraid to experiment and let the kids know. If something doesn't work, simply change it.
- Don't be afraid to contact experts. They are always happy to help classroom teachers.