School Notes: April 2020

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Henley eighth graders Grace and Ava and their Change Project, Happy Meals Kill Gills. Photo: Lisa Martin.

A Change Of Pace 

Henley Middle School’s eighth grade class showed off their Change Projects at a Promo Night in early March, one of the last school events to take place before large gatherings were disallowed and schools were closed in Virginia’s effort to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. An annual effort at Henley, the Change Projects are intended to challenge students to use several different research, communications, and language arts skills to produce a tangible, do-able plan to make a change for the better in their community, and this year’s results were varied and enterprising.

“The project really allows us to work with the students on their soft skills, like conflict resolution and collaboration, and for them to pick up techniques in media and promotion that they can use in the future,” said Elizabeth Sweatman, one of the three eighth grade language arts teachers. “There are gaps in their knowledge of how to do some basic things, such as how to write a formal email, how to call an authority on the phone and handle themselves professionally, and how to deal with someone who doesn’t respond. We teach them how to do all of that.”

Henley eighth grader Will and his Change Project, Creek Scandal. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The students were allowed wide latitude in their choice of topic, and worked on projects with goals as varied as helping the homeless population, reusing old tires and bags, and creating gender-neutral bathrooms. “We let them choose any issue they saw as important, something that excited them, as long as it was valid and actionable,” said Sweatman. “We started by asking them what kind of thing they like to do most—for example, do they like to build stuff with their hands, or would they prefer to work with legislators and raise awareness?—and then they formed groups of up to four other students who had similar preferences.”

After writing a paper with their group to identify their issue as well as to research how others have tried to deal with the issue both locally and globally, the students got busy writing emails and making phone calls to try to make some headway on their projects. At Promo Night, they talked about their ideas and displayed their work on posters or 3D presentations on tables in the cafeteria.

Grace and Ava would like to stop water pollution caused by McDonald’s Happy Meal toy giveaways. “All the plastic toys just get thrown away, and then they get into the ocean and we’re trying to stop it,” said Grace. “We’re starting a petition to support our position, and hopefully McDonald’s will see that people aren’t keeping the toys so there’s no point in giving them out.” Ava noted that they had also contacted 4Ocean, an environmental group that is working to end the ocean plastic crisis, to help with their effort.

Henley eighth graders Hadley and Natalie and their Change Project, Oral History of Crozet. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Ethan decided to participate in his group’s project but to also launch another on his own, due to his fierce defense of the right to repair one’s own devices. “I did this because it’s really important to me, because it affects literally every single person who owns a product,” he said. At issue is manufacturers who try to prevent regular citizens from repairing patented devices such as computers. 

“If you try to get a custom screwdriver to repair, say, your Nintendo 64 from eight years ago, the company can sue you and force you to go to their own repair places, which sometimes cost more than the product itself,” said Ethan. He bemoans the lobbying influence of big-name companies such as Apple against Right to Repair legislation that has been introduced in 38 states, and hopes to raise awareness and support for fairer repair laws in the future.

Hadley and Natalie would like to create a documentary about the history of Crozet and how the town has changed through the years, and are recruiting volunteers to be interviewed for the project. “I’ve personally seen Crozet change so much, particularly Old Trail,” said Hadley, “and I don’t know what it was like 20 years ago.” The pair plan to take video and have voiceover narratives behind still images of Crozet and surrounds, and hope to put the final project someplace accessible to local residents, such as the Crozet Library or on a website.

Henley eighth grader Ethan and his Change Project, Right to Repair. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Will took photos of runoff barricades that had been torn down and not rebuilt at a construction site in his Old Trail neighborhood for his project about protecting local creeks. “The Virginia stormwater management program governs the rules and regulations for the barricades, and some Crozet construction teams are not abiding by them and it’s polluting the creek,” he said. “We have this creek, which goes into the James and then to the Chesapeake Bay and then the ocean, so it’s important here at the source.” Will and his group are gathering signatures on a petition that they plan to present to the construction crew head to persuade the crew to fix the barricades.

“This is the midway point,” said Sweatman as she browsed the presentations, greeting and encouraging the students. “Lots of them have computers and are collecting data for volunteers and making connections. At the end they’ll hopefully make their project happen and they’ll write a whole reflective piece on the experience. They can get an A even if the project fails, as long as they throw themselves into it and learn from it.”

Even though they are home now, here’s hoping these inspiring students are doing just that. 

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