2018-08-02 / News

Fifth-graders use mighty pen to make voices heard

Project lets them be part of civic discourse
BY TIM RIEL


Lawn School fifth-graders Ellie Tighe, left, and Lillian Smith research rain barrels during social studies class with teacher Christine Bernardo. Using this information, the girls wrote letters that were delivered to newspapers and town officials as part of a project to make the children more socially aware and “understand the power of their voice,” Bernardo said. Lawn School fifth-graders Ellie Tighe, left, and Lillian Smith research rain barrels during social studies class with teacher Christine Bernardo. Using this information, the girls wrote letters that were delivered to newspapers and town officials as part of a project to make the children more socially aware and “understand the power of their voice,” Bernardo said. “Don’t suck.”

That’s the title of a letter from Eve d’Ambrosio, a Narragansett Avenue resident who submitted her thoughts to the town councilors in June. The simple two-word headline was a clever play on words to illustrate the dangers of plastic straws.

Unlike the lion’s share of letters delivered to the town, however, Eve does not pay property taxes. That’s because she’s a fifth-grader — and her letter was just one of about four dozen delivered to newspaper editors, town councilors and federal officials as high as the White House, including President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.


BERNARDO BERNARDO The bombardment of correspondence — from the pros of honey bees to the cons of dog poop, from the benefits of rain barrels to the dangers of smoking — was the brainchild of Lawn School teacher Christine Bernardo.

When students enter her class from fourth grade, she said, they lack the elementary basics of how their government works. In particular, she introduces them to the First Amendment.

“The importance of helping students express their voice and understand the power of their voice has been an underlying theme in all of my social studies classes,” said Bernardo, winner of the 2018 Susan B. Wilson Civic Education Merit Award from the League of Women Voters. “I take this responsibility very seriously.”

Environmental concerns

Among the letters sent to The Jamestown Press was from Lillian Smith, a Courageous Court resident who wanted homeowners to know the upside to rain barrels. This topic is especially newsworthy to a community like Jamestown, which has a limited water supply as a sole source aquifer.

“Rain barrels conserve water,” wrote the rising sixth-grader. “Just one inch of rain water can generate up to 620 gallons on a 1,000-square-foot roof, easily filling just one rain barrel. Most people who have rain barrels use the water they collect to water lawns and gardens. Without rain barrels, these people would have to use clean drinking water.”

Ellie Tighe, of Top O The Mark Drive, delivered similar thoughts to the council. In her letter, she illustrated her point by referencing Epoch Rain Barrels, an award-winning company for conservation.

“Lawn and garden watering make up nearly 40 percent of household water use during the summer,” she wrote.

While conserving water, rain barrels also eliminate polluted runoff that is not treated before flowing into storm drains, she wrote. Ellie’s conclusion was for Jamestown to offer rain barrels at a reduced price.

“Some students were looking for specific answers and data,” Bernardo said. “That was very cool.”

Students did not have carte blanche to choose their own topics because Bernardo was worried about them wandering onto the wrong websites. Also, time was a factor.

“Fifth-grade students have much to articulate, but the resources can be difficult to find for this age,” she said.

They did, however, have input. Bernardo began the lesson with a questionnaire to identify issues that hit close to home. Once the students chose a topic and a position, they began researching. Bernardo, school librarian Lisa Casey and parents were instrumental in this phase.

“I find it difficult to teach anything unless it directly relates to my students’ understanding of their place in the world,” she said.

Cross-learning experience

Ultimately, the students elected issues that also are being argued at the municipal level, including the dangers of pet waste entering Sheffield Cove.

“Have you ever seen a sign that says ‘no shellfishing’ and you wonder why?” asked fifth-grader Avery Shaft.

According to the Lawn Avenue resident, it is dangerous to have dogs on public beaches because their waste can leak into the bay, causing E. coli and salmonella. She referenced the Mayo Clinic and North Carolina State University in her letter.

“This is dangerous because if people with weak immune systems are swimming, and accidentally swallow water, they can get sick or possibly die,” she wrote.

Along with banning dogs from public swimming holes, she suggested “waste stations” around town, including “Narragansett Avenue, East Shore Road and the town green.”

While learning their civic duties, the lesson collaborated with the English department to hone the students’ writing skills.

In the future, Bernardo hopes to integrate the math department to highlight “the important aspect of economic impacts of the problem and benefits of the solution.”

By the time the students are introduced to teacher Maureen McGuirl’s formal civics curriculum, Project Citizen, as seventh and eighth-graders, the goal is for them to be seasoned activists.

With the summer looming, Bernardo said the students “steadfastly” worked on their letters during the last weeks of school when most students are typically clocked out for the year. As an example, she said the passion was palpable when Declan Mollis, whose letter appeared in the July 5 edition of the newspaper, received a response from the editor moments after he e-mailed it.

“They realized, ‘This is real. Someone cares what I have to say.’ It revved everyone up,” Bernardo said.

In the upcoming year, Bernardo hopes to get an early jump on this lesson. She is even considering an active role at town council meetings, having students speak during open forum, and maybe even a trip to the State House in Providence. She wants her classes to know that they can have their voices heard.

“I truly wonder,” Bernardo said, “what could be more important?”

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