From January to March, my students worked on a project, called Hungry for Change. We studied how the National School Lunch Program works, how school meals can taken different forms in different contexts, and how students and families can evaluate their options at their schools and advocate for improved ones.
At that time, students did not enjoy what they were being served for lunch. The menu rarely changed, food was heavily packaged, and sometimes it was even served cold. Perhaps more strange, they were often forced to take food they did not want.
Students met with registered dietitians, policy experts, and staff members involved with the lunch program. They even visited four food providers to High Tech High. They were able to tour their kitchens, taste their food, and engage them in lengthy question and answer sessions over tradeoffs involved serving healthy, affordable meals in schools without kitchens or licenses to serve food on campus and what structures are in place to provide feedback and make changes.
This was what I had planned for students: an exciting fieldwork opportunity, real world complexity and controversy, and a chance for them to see that they can affect change on a variety of issues at a variety of levels.
During all of these meetings, they learned that every few years, High Tech High accepts bids through a request for proposals, in which staff members and students evaluate interested food providers using a range of criteria, including cost, taste, and nutrition. Because of their project, they were invited to prepare a series of recommendations for the RFP committee and send student representatives to its meetings. The students who attended the meetings were knowledgable, active participants in the conversations that ultimately led to decision to select a new food provider for our school -- one with a menu that changes every month, instead of every week, and food made fresh every day in local kitchens.
This was much more than I had planned for students. I had no idea that High Tech High might be considering new food providers when I had the idea for this project, and it had never occurred to me to ask. It was only later that I realized that all schools and districts are always weighing decisions like this one. They might be redesigning a playground, selecting a new math textbook, or updating line items on the report card. If you were to ask administrators or the chairs of the relevant committees, these are decisions in which staff members want to involve students in meaningful ways, and they provide most of the same learning opportunities as Hungry for Change -- just substitute federal regulations on sugar for ones relating to the height of swing sets.
If you have some flexibility with the particular content you teach, why not plan a project based on your school or district to-do list? I have found that it provides a unique opportunity not only to engage and empower students, but also build relationships and generate goodwill within your school system.
Blogging my work as a teacher, educational consultant, speaker, and host of New Books in Education.