Let me begin by fully disclosing that I’m about to write about something that took place in my son’s classroom. However, my reason for writing this isn’t coming from the proud mom perspective. Instead, it’s to highlight a positive and meaningful project that happened in a Milwaukee Public School as a reminder that, despite all of the loss due to budget restraints, there are still a lot of positive experiences unfurling inside public school buildings.
Dale Weiss teaches third grade at La Escuela Fratney, a two-way bilingual Milwaukee public school located in Riverwest. One of Fratney’s four school-wide themes is “we can make a difference on planet earth.”
“Rather than talk about ways people can make a difference on planet earth, I wanted to engage the students in a project where they were actually making a difference on planet earth. In a discussion with the students, we brainstormed possible ideas, things they were interested in, in terms of helping others,” says Weiss.
The kids’ provided a slew of suggestions, from collecting food to finding homes for stray dogs and cats. Weiss suggested to the students that they combine the ideas because the school had recently done a food drive and, unfortunately, saving stray animals probably wasn’t a good fit for the classroom.
“I went home that night and tried to think of a project that combined food and animals,” says Weiss.
Through research, Weiss found Heifer International, an organization that raises money to buy livestock for families in Africa. The next day, Weiss and her students watched two videos about Heifer and decided as a group that they would raise money to buy sheep ($120 each), goats ($120 each) and chickens ($20 for a flock of seven).
“I like Heifer International as an organization because of their philosophy. The organization is not about giving charity; it is about providing families with the resources and training through which to become self-sufficient,” says Weiss. “Additionally, when a family receives livestock from Heifer International, and the livestock has offspring, the family gives the offspring to another family. The philosophy puts into action self-sufficiency and community building in a very tangible way.”
The students set a goal of $1,000 and decided they would raise the money by making and selling beaded jewelry and keychains and having four bake sales in conjunction with school-wide events. After four months of fundraising, they raised $740.
Weiss turned the earnings into a math lesson. She split the kids into small groups and asked them to figure out how many of each animal they wanted to buy with the money. There were four different combinations proposed and the group discussed why they felt one animal was more important than another.
“We should buy mostly sheep because people can make wool from the sheep; make clothes and blankets from the wool; and then the people from Africa will be warm,” was one of the group’s reasons. “We should buy a lot of chickens because when the chickens lay eggs, some of the eggs could turn into more chickens and then the people in Africa will have more animals,” was another.
Then they voted on the suggestions. In the end, they decided on three goats, two sheep and seven flocks of chickens. One student exclaimed, “This is just like a real live math problem! Plus we get to help other people at the same time!”
During the fundraising effort, which ran from January until May, Weiss incorporated other academic aspects into the project. She read the class the book “Beatrice’s Goat,” a true story about how one African family’s life was impacted by the gift of a goat. She also had the kids create an island off the coast of Africa.
“To know what would be possible and realistic on their created island such as weather patterns, landforms, crops and animals, each student researched the country in Africa that was in closest proximity to where they placed their island on the map,” says Weiss.
She also emphasized that even though MPS was facing huge budget cuts, and even though Fratney and MPS need a lot of money, it was also important to not just think about oneself but to also give to others in need.
Overall, Weiss says she hopes her students learned two things through this project.
“One, when they see a situation where something is unfair — like some people in Africa not having a means through which to make a living or go to school — there is always something they can do to try to make the unfair situation a more fair one,” says Weiss. “And secondly, that no matter how bad our own situation may be, it is always important to think of and help others in need … I mailed the check for $740 this morning.”