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Changing Communities With Books: The Citizen Power Project

In November, First Book and its partners the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute presented the Citizen Power Project; a challenge to educators nationwide to identify, plan, and implement a civic engagement project important to their students, school or community.

Fifteen of those projects received grants to help turn their big plans into big impact.

Since then the fifteen projects have gotten underway and the results have been phenomenal. With a wide range of projects each in different phases, we thought we would check in with educators to hear about what their project has done so far and where it is going.

In Framingham, Massachusetts, middle school English teacher Lori DiGisi knows her students don’t always feel empowered. “They feel like the adults rule everything and that they don’t really have choices,” she explains. “The issue I’m trying to solve is for a diverse group of students to see that they can make a difference in their community.”

Using the First Book Marketplace, Lori and her class chose to read books about young people who did something to change the world -- books with diverse characters that each student could identify with. Through stories, Lori’s students have begun to understand that they too can make a difference.

From here, Lori plans to narrow the focus onto the issue of improving working conditions. Students will interview custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers in their school to understand what their working conditions are like and ask the all-important question: “what can we, as middle schoolers, do to make your working conditions better?”

Meanwhile in Malvern, Arkansas, middle school English teacher Claudine James has used the Citizen Power Project to improve upon an already successful program. Five years ago Claudine visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and wanted to bring that experience back to her students.

That year they studied the Holocaust and in the spring put together a miniature Holocaust Museum in their school and even opened it to the public.

The reaction to the museum was something Claudine never expected.

“It was very well received by the community and in fact, we had an opening day reception on a Sunday afternoon and there was no room to even stand.”

Claudine has organized project-based learning initiatives like this every year since. The Malvern community has embraced them, and even come to expect them.

This year, as part of the Citizen Power Project, Claudine and her class are planning an exhibit called, ‘Writers from Around the World’ and reading books by authors from all around the globe. The goal is to promote tolerance and understanding among her students and for her students to promote those ideas to the community.

“When my students are presented with problems that other people from other cultures have to overcome, they see the world in a new light,” explains Claudine, “then they go home and spread the word.”

The final stop on our tour is Newark, New Jersey where kindergarten teacher Racheal Safier has her young students thinking globally. “We wanted to figure out what climate change is,” she explains, “they took a really big interest in how global warming affects animals.”

Racheal has been amazed by her students’ enthusiasm for this topic and the project, but she knows where it comes from. “Books have been the launching point for so many of the ideas generated in my classroom.”

Now that ideas are being launched, Racheal wants to show her class the next step: what actions do we take?

And they have many planned. There will be brochures distributed to parents, a table at the school’s social justice fair, maybe a video, and even letters to the President.

“I want it to be their project and some of the things they come up with, I am really blown away.”

These three projects are just a snapshot of all the important work educators are doing around the country for the Citizen Power Project. Lori, Claudine, and Racheal are shining examples of the impact that educators can have on their students and their communities.

For educators to do that, their students need access to educational resources and First Book is proud help provide that access for the Citizen Power Project.

When these 15 projects are completed in early 2017, be sure to check the First Book blog to see videos and pictures, and hear stories of impact from all over the country.

If you’re an educator serving kids in need, please visit the First Book Marketplace to register and browse our collection of educational resources. Click here to learn more about the Citizen Power Project.

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