This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Right before winter break, the third graders in Jessica Morris’s class at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia had a big debate. The question was over what issue to tackle for their project that highlights something important to them and to their community.
Morris is a Need In Deed teacher, meaning she works with the nonprofit on service-learning projects that bring the real world into the classroom and highlight the importance of student voices — no matter how young.
“We started the school year observing our community and taking note of what we love, and what we don’t love, about our community,” Morris explained. “We came up with an enormous list of issues.”
They narrowed it down to three: homelessness, consideration (meaning how people treat each other), and animal welfare. “By the end of the day we went with animal welfare,” said Morris, who is in her third year of teaching. By mid-March, they had spent a lot of time delving into the topic, and had heard from several community partners, which included organizations like Hand2Paw, Philly Pet Care, and the Lancaster Farm Sanctuary. More presentations were in the works, ranging from a local café that serves only vegan meals to animal shelters run by PAWS.
Then the pandemic closed schools. On Friday, March 13, Morris had a few hours warning.
“When we found out the closure was indeed happening, I sat down with the kids to ask, what are your ideas, what animals, what actions should we take,” she said. Right after the shutdown she continued meeting virtually with the class via Zoom, before the District banned its use due to security concerns. When the shutdown went beyond two weeks, she asked the kids, “What do want you want to do now?”
She was concerned.
“It was important that we not leave in a place of sadness about the abuse that animals experience,” he said.
Morris has 23 students in her class. Before the District started taking attendance and grading on May 4, about half her students were regularly signing in to Google Classroom and working on the project. After May 4, participation shot up — she generally has no fewer than 21 students, sometimes all 23, for her morning sessions.
Under Zoom, she could use “breakout rooms” and split the class into smaller segments for discussions, but that is not possible with Google Classroom. For the animal welfare project, the students are in the process of creating a website to explain the issues and raise money for organizations that help homeless and mistreated animals.
She has broken the class into several groups, each with a task, and every day she meets separately with one of them. “I grouped them on what roles they have in the project,” she said. “Some are fact collectors, some are writing a persuasive paragraph for people to donate, some are figuring out what we can tell people who want to help, some are creating posters to hang in the neighborhood and online posters to put on social media.” While some do the research, others are “media makers,” which includes making audio and video recordings highlighting the issues, and writing their own skits.
In addition to the project, she conducts more traditional 90-minute classes three times a week. She does some talking, but in each class she has two or three students share their work. “I continually have ideas about how we can make it less about me and more about them,” she said.
She is also looking out for signals that her students, most of whom live in stable households, are doing well emotionally. During a small group session, she asked the students to share something they were working on. One held up a picture of a sad face.
“I checked in with the parent, and then with him,” she said. “This was a kid who I heard so many times say that he hates school. We talked for 45 minutes. He’s really missing the contact with others.”
And she is taking care not to get overwhelmed herself.
“I don’t have kids, that is huge” in allowing her to manage her time, she said. But in early May, she and her husband adopted a puppy, a hound-husky lab mix named Benson, and he is keeping her busy. On one virtual session, she introduced him to the students. “I was inspired by the work we’d done,” she said. “They all melted. It was a really sweet moment.”