A defining moment of my long career in education occurred in March 2017. I had been working with colleague Ann Zivotsky and her 5th grade class as we developed an opinion/argument writing unit on marine debris that delved into the problem and explored possible solutions.
At the time, I was involved in the National Writing Project’s College, Career and Community Writers Program (C3WP) through the San Diego Area Writing Project. Over several weeks, I built upon the available resources to develop the unit. The project was a success; the students learned a lot, wrote compelling essays, and created convincing public service announcements.
I was incredibly pleased with their work and wanted it to reach a broader audience. On a whim, I decided to contact an Oceanside City Council Member to inquire about the possibility of having the students share their learning during an upcoming City Council meeting. He responded immediately and enthusiastically, stating that he would place it on the agenda.
The students worked on the presentation and practiced their parts, and when the day finally arrived, everyone was prepared—yet nervous. I had never spoken at a City Council meeting before. In fact, I had never even attended one. It was completely new for the students and their families as well.
In spite of the newness of the experience, the students were poised presenters. They received a standing ovation and were proud of themselves for being brave enough to do something that would intimidate most adults. The article in the local newspaper provided additional validation.
The positive feedback made me realize that ordinary citizens, even those still in elementary school, can have an impact, and I began looking for more ways to connect with elected officials. Over the next couple of years, I arranged opportunities for students to meet with Oceanside leaders and City staff members. Students also canvassed restaurants and attended community events to gather signatures in support of a single-use plastic reduction ordinance.
Unfortunately, the pandemic interrupted our outreach, but in April of 2023, Ann asked me if I wanted to revisit the marine debris unit with her current students, and I was eager to join her. To kick off the unit, I visited the class and presented my beach-found plastic Making to Make a Difference art activity as a way to engage students before Ann dove deeper into the topic.
Using a text set that included everything from videos and articles to infographics and fact sheets, students read, watched, and analyzed and used a note taking organizer to capture key points. The text set highlighted the long-time favorite Trash Talk video series produced by NOAA. The accompanying Trash Talk transcipts were helpful as students processed the information and reflected upon the content of the videos. (See Plastic Pollution Teaching Resources for more resources.)
In addition to learning about the causes and impacts of marine debris, students read articles and watched videos about solutions, including innovative ideas such as the Ocean Cleanup Project created by Boyan Slat and a contraption used to clean the Baltimore Harbor called Mr. Trash Wheel.
Based on everything they learned, students wrote claims about the best way to solve the marine debris problem. The Developing a Claim graphic organizer helped them refine their ideas, which ranged from beach cleanups and littering prevention to a reduction in single-use plastic items such as water bottles and carryout bags.
After students had finalized their claims, they began drafting their essays. For inspiring their leads, we shared models written by students in 2016 and provided an organizer to help the current 5th graders think about what they might want to include.
We then helped them pull evidence from the variety of texts they had explored and asked them to complete a graphic organizer to scaffold how to cite an expert. In addition, we provided sentence stems for those needing additional support as they decided upon the evidence they wanted to include.
We also challenged students to add counterarguments of sorts, by having them think about what those who don’t care about the problem might say or do. Again, mentor texts and sentence stems were helpful because this wasn’t something the 5th graders had been asked to do before.
For their conclusions, students circled back to their introductions and considered how the coastline could be transformed, if everyone acted upon the solution that was suggested in their claim.
In spite of the perceived “learning gaps” that some people focus on when discussing the pandemic’s impacts on education, we had high expectations, and the students proved us right. Their heartfelt writing met—and even exceeded—our expectations!
Then, somewhat by coincidence, the marine debris prevention conversation was returning to the Oceanside City Council just as students were completing their final drafts. I offered the class the opportunity to speak, and seven decided to participate. They formed two groups, and collaborated on their comments using information that they had learned over the previous few weeks. The students were understandably nervous, but when it was their turn, they approached the podium and spoke assuredly.
I was thrilled that the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with an ordinance that evening, but I was even happier that the students had the opportunity to be a part of making change happen. The class was even mentioned in a Coast News article entitled Oceanside bans Styrofoam containers.
If all this wasn’t enough, Ann and I decided to have students create public service announcements as a culminating activity. Some students worked individually while others collaborated with partners to create storyboards before selecting photos, recording voice overs, and adding music. Their learning was distilled down into impactful 30 – 60 minute videos.
A draft Marine Debris Reduction Ordinance will come before the Oceanside City Council in August, and even though these 5th graders will have headed off to middle school by then, I am hoping that some of them will want to continue participating. With young advocates speaking on behalf of the environment, the Council will surely be compelled to give final approval to an ordinance that will reduce the impacts of plastic pollution on our local beaches and beyond.
Listen as one of the students reflects on her City Council experience:
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Janis, I love that you took the time to document this amazing work on your blog! It’s great to have the resources all in one place…where everyone can be inspired by it. This is such important work–the real world writing that engaged citizens need to do. I hope you also link this post to your slide for tomorrow.