SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – At South Plainfield’s Grant School, a sixth grade science unit recently stemmed into a multi-disciplinary school-wide initiative through which students served as the voice of the animals. The week-long event, which ran from April 18 through April 24, raised awareness of several endangered species and over $4,000 for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“This project made us care about animals so much more and understand the important impact they have and how they do so much for our environment,” said Grant sixth grader Allison Schwarz.”

Prior to spring break, the sixth grade science classes completed their studies on biodiversity – the diversity of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem. Through the unit, taught for the first time this year as part of the new Next Generation Science Standards, students and learned about various endangered animals, the dangers they face, and how human impact and activities ultimately affect the populations of many critically endangered species.

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“Throughout our unit on biodiversity, students learned of different ways that they can help by voicing their opinions. They created infographics on invasive species and how we as humans are one of the most invasive species do what is in our best interest not thinking what’s best for the other species that live among us, said sixth grade science teacher Emilie Bishara.

The sixth graders were also charged with creating public service announcements (PSA) on endangered species. Working in groups of two, the students put their technology skills to use to create 1- to 3-minute long PSAs that featured music, graphics, transitions, and voiceovers. Additionally, the sixth graders also researched different petitions on animal welfare and selected those they personally felt most passionate about.

“These are all different ways in which a sixth grader – a 12-year-old – can still be heard,” said Bishara, noting that she hopes to have some of the PSAs posted on the district website.

“It grew into a multi-disciplinary lesson,” added sixth grade social studies teacher Rebecca Gross. “It had a research piece, the students used technology, were creative, and worked together. The work-ethic alone was pretty impressive.”

Upon return to school on April 18, a school-wide Awareness Week initiative was launched with an endangered species assigned to each of the four major subject areas: fifth/sixth grade English/language arts had bumblebees, fifth/sixth grade math had polar bears, fifth/sixth science had elephants, and fifth/sixth grade social studies had sea turtles.

During homeroom, short educational videos about each respective animal replaced Channel 1 for the week. Students were also provided the option to take part in a poster contest. Submitted artwork was hung on the walls of the school and on April 24 teachers and administrators voted for their favorite. A winner from each species was selected and received a $10 gift card to Rita’s Italian Ice.  The winners were: fifth grader Nina DeSimone, polar bear; fifth grader Christina Zhang, sea turtle;  sixth grader Gabrielle Santamaria, bumblebee; and fifth grader Lily Ha, elephant.

Awareness Week also featured a ‘Penny War’ fundraiser, with all donations benefiting WWF. At the start of the week, each homeroom received a collection jug for its assigned species and, over the course of the next five days, donations of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and even $1 and $5 bills came pouring in.

“Our goal was to raise money for World Wildlife to help save and adopt the animals,” said sixth grader Sarah Jadallah, whose homeroom was assigned the elephant.

“Students weren’t just giving for their own homeroom jars; they were putting money in other jars as well,” said Gross. “Ultimately, it was all about altruism and how efforts aren’t always about materialistic results but the cause itself. It was the idea of giving and that we are a community and that not everything is reciprocal in a material way.”

Kids would come to class all day long and offer to put money in our donation jar.  Our students would say, ‘I donated to my homeroom’s endangered species but I want to help the elephants too,’ and then they would generously make another donation.  It was really heartwarming to witness,” said Michelle Kirchofer, a sixth grade in-class resource science teacher at Grant, adding that the project and the students’ enthusiasm grew as the days went on.

“The students would talk in the halls and had facts to back them up. It was great to hear them talking about why an animal is so important and why we cannot live without them,” Kirchofer added.

“We learned that [these animals] are extraordinary and why it is important to save them….,” said Sarah. “They don't have their voices and it is important that we speak for them.”

“This project made us care about animals so much more and from this day forward our voices can make an impact,” said Allison.

The Penny War sparked some friendly competition between the homerooms with Grant School raising $4,035.33 for WWF. The sea turtle brought in the largest donation with $1,427.16 followed by elephants ($875.64), polar bears ($848.97) and bumblebees ($720.56). Additionally, one homeroom for each species earned bragging rights and will receive the official WWF adoption package for their endangered species. The winners were: bumble bee - Mr. Jakubik/5th grade; polar bear - Mrs. Basile/6th grade; elephant - Mrs. Vaz/6th grade, and sea turtle - Mr. Wieczorek/6th grade.

Grant School also wishes to extend a big ‘thank you’ to Shannon Jeffreys at Columbia Bank in South Plainfield for allowing use of their coin counting machine.

According to Kirchofer, planning of the week-long program took close to a month to put together and wouldn't have been possible without the support of all Grant’s teachers and students.

“We are very proud of our student body and the support we have received from all of our staff,” she said, adding that the initiative ‘blossomed into something more than we had ever thought it would.’

Grant sixth grade science teacher Laura Vaz added, “I don’t know what I enjoyed more: the sincere concern the students developed or the ardent student chanting for the animals in the hallways, every day, during the change of class. What I do know is that I had a great deal of fun sharing the enthusiasm and learning with the students.”

Shanti Murray, supervisor of science for the South Plainfield School District, said she thought the program was ‘amazing’ with Grant’s teachers going ‘above and beyond all expectations for the curriculum.’

“They are taking what they are doing in the classroom and extending it into the real world,” said Murray. “This is an example of the great team of teachers and their efforts to work collaboratively.”

Sixth grader Darin Larsen added, “The teachers made it fun and I like learned about the animals and all they do for us. I hope other students will talk about and maybe donate to the animals they like.”

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