Friday, February 29, 2008

The Letter Writing Strategy

When the Cyber Chickens attended their first Trinity Task Force meeting, Attorney Wallace introduced them to the "Letter Writing Strategy." He talked about a character in the movie Shawshank Redemption who worked in the prison library. He wanted new books for the library, so he wrote a letter to the state every week requesting money. Eventually they got tired of the letters, and they sent him $200. When he got the money, he started writing two letters a week.

Today the Cyber Chickens mapped out their "Letter Writing Strategy" for Project S.C.A.T. The goal: to expedite the cleanup of the contaminated site next to our school. Trinity Industries has already been ordered by the courts to clean the site, but they seem to be dragging their feet by trying to drag other parties into the lawsuit. It has been over a year since they were charged, but cleanup is not foreseeable in the near future.

We started with a brainstorming session. First, the students discussed who our audience should be. They came up with a pretty comprehensive list including the governor, The Department of Environmental Protection, State Representatives, USA Today, Oprah Winfrey, CNN, Time for Kids, and Newsweek (for a start.)

Next, they discussed what should be in the letter. (This is when the teacher in me kicked in.) While they talked, I took notes in Microsoft Word and projected it onto the SmartBoard. When they were done, they had an outline for their letters (and I had a rubric to grade them.)

To wrap up our brainstorming session, they planned out their strategy. In groups of two to four students, each group will focus on an audience for their letter. Letters will be mailed out every other day to each audience with a total of 26 letters being mailed out per week. Their plan (keep in mind) is for each student to write a letter each week until the end of the school year. I did contribute at this point by suggesting we add a Google calendar to our wiki, so that we can keep track of who is getting letters when.

Finally, it was time for lunch and I announced we would put their plan into action next week. In my mind, I had already written my English plans for next week.

On the way to lunch, a student said to me, "Can we start after lunch?"

Another said, "Would it be okay if we start writing the letter this weekend?"

I said, "Sure. I think that would be okay."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Cyber Chickens Go Erin Brockovich

This week my students and I took authentic learning to a new level. Tuesday evening we attended the first ever Trinity Task Force meeting. It was amazing. Sitting around a table at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce was Attorney Dan Wallace, Greenville's Mayor Dick Miller, State Representative Michelle Brooks, about twenty concerned community members, myself and ten fifth grade students. In Dan Wallace's introduction, he made it clear that these fifth graders were not only the future of Greenville, they were every bit a member of this newly formed task force as everyone else at the table. As the sign-up sheet made its way around the table, my students proudly added their names and gaggle emails to the list.

How did these fifth graders end up in such a serious meeting discussing serious matters in a serious way? It all started with Tom McGee's Project Lemonade, where students are coming together from around the world with a common goal: to make a difference in the world. My students decided to make their difference right in their own back yard. Literally next door to our elementary school is an abandoned industrial site.

Trinity Industries, a major corporation, packed up their train car manufacturing plant and moved the operation to Mexico several years ago. In addition to the economic devastation they inflicted upon the town, they left a site contaminated with hazardous waste. Over a year ago, the company was taken to court by DEP and found guilty for environmental crimes. They were fined and ordered to clean up the site. Over a year has passed, and very little has been done to set the clean up in progress. Trinity, a large corporation with lots of resources at their fingertips, have chosen to use these resources to stall the process rather than expedite it.

So what is the goal of the Trinity Task Force? As stated in the meeting, we would like to see that the site is cleaned up as expeditiously as possible without sacrificing the safety of the community. We plan to be the watch dogs to make sure all the t's are crossed and i's dotted.

How do Mrs. Abernethy's Cyber Chickens plan to help? For starters, they already have a wiki and a blog. These have been set up to keep the public informed of the problem and the progress. It's also a place we hope the community can come to for discussion.

Students have already learned a lot with the added bonus of meeting quite a few state standards in their quest to learn more. Researching the history of the site, interviewing former employees, reading and analyzing newspaper articles and legal documents are just a few learning activities they have indulged in so far. Just think of what's to come.

If you're interested in following their project, by all means check out the wiki and blog and add them to your reader.
Project Trinity Wikispace
Project Trinity Blog