By Bob Schwalb
H.E.A.R.T began delivering humane education programs to all of the 4th and 5th grade classes at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin’s Creekside Elementary in 2016. These sessions include semester-long Humane Living Programs covering lessons on human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics. They also include an innovative program that in some ways resembles a traditional science fair. But rather than focusing on scientific experiments, students research and present on one of many humane education topics of their choosing. More on the fair in a bit.
From the very beginning, the Creekside Elementary community – administrators , teachers, aides, and parents – have given their full support to H.E.A.R.T. The school has an acronym that serves as its guiding principle, CARES, which stands for Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control. This principle fits hand-in-glove with H.E.A.R.T.’s mission to foster empathy and compassion, and it also serves to inspire the A HEART that CARES Fair.
During the first half of the school year, 4th and 5th graders at Creekside participate in H.E.A.R.T.’s previously mentioned 10-lesson Humane Living Program. This program not only teaches students valuable information on a variety of topics, it also engages them in critical thinking and develops their capacity for empathy and compassion. Students utilize these skills in their A HEART that CARES Fair projects.
Students work on the fair projects during the final two months of the school year – a time when many teachers say they find it difficult to keep their students engaged. Student engagement, however, is not a problem for the students preparing for the fair.
Students begin their project by selecting a topic that focuses on one of the many intractable problems facing the world today. These are topics that we may or may not have covered in the earlier 10-lesson program. Students perform in-depth research and use that information to create a PowerPoint presentation and/or a research paper. They also create an oral presentation which they present to their classmates and other classes at their school. Finally, students create visual displays, examples of which can be seen in the photos below. On the evening of the fair, students present their work to parents, peers, siblings, teachers, and members of the community at the A HEART that CARES Fair.
Here’s a sampling of the topics we saw at the fair this year: Disability Rights, Body Shaming, Senior Citizen Loneliness, Dogfighting, Animal Testing, Dog and Cat Spay/Neuter, Food Waste, Invasive Species, Household Toxins, and much more.
Students, by and large, find this project extremely rewarding. They love the freedom of selecting a topic that truly interests them and they love having the time to become experts on that topic. Here are some things the students had to say about the fair:
“What I liked about the H.E.A.R.T. fair is that we all can learn things we didn’t know about. Learning things that we didn’t know about is amazing.” (4th grader)
“We got to tell people about life topics that we worked hard on.” ~Lily (5th grader)
“I liked how we all worked together and how we got to choose the topic we worked hard to do instead of having the teacher picking for us.” ~Adreanna (5th grader)
The feedback from those attending the fair was universally positive, too, with many attendees noting that they couldn’t believe students so young were able to comprehend and articulate such complex subject matter. As part of the research on their topic, each group defined the issue, discussed its causes and effects, and perhaps most importantly identified solutions that included actions that we can take collectively and individually.
It’s very important to note that the students’ realization that all of these problems do have solutions is one of the primary reasons they tend not to become overwhelmed by the seriousness and gravity of the issues. Generally, a person becomes overwhelmed when they feel helpless and unable to effect change, but when students are able to identify solutions and then put those solutions into action, they transform helplessness into empowerment.
H.E.A.R.T. seeks to empower each young person we teach with the information and skills they need to create the just and sustainable world they desire and deserve.