Aspiring educators connect with young students to explore ways to make a difference

Students share ideas for positive change through essay contest

EAST LANSING — Michigan elementary school students recently shared their ideas to make positive change in their communities, with six winning a statewide essay contest spearheaded by the Michigan Education Association’s Aspiring Educators of Michigan program.

Left to right: Brittany Perreault, Aryana Jharia, Erica Beremooser

With the award-winning children’s picture book “We Are Water Protectors” as inspiration, elementary school students were asked to consider how they could make a difference in their community with a $100 budget. Members of Aspiring Educators of Michigan, a preprofessional organization for individuals preparing for the teaching profession, connected with elementary school teachers and librarians who were asked to read the book with students and encourage participation in an essay contest as part of the project.

A panel of judges scored the essay submissions in May. The contest winners will each receive $100 and be asked to document their advocacy project.

Student winners of the essay contest include:

  • Julianna Randall of Cole Academy in Lansing, on donating supplies for her local animal shelter.
  • Mary Tokarski of Cole Academy in Lansing, on purchasing blankets and pillows for children in foster homes.
  • Isabella Papierz of Comstock Stem Academy in Kalamazoo, on creating a recycling center at her school.
  • Charlie Baker of Comstock Stem Academy in Kalamazoo, on donating to hospitals to support children with loves ones hospitalized with cancer.
  • Lamere Mcguire of Holmes Elementary in Ypsilanti, on purchasing educational board games for rewarding good behavior at school.
  • Ziigwan Calloway of Saginaw Chippewa Academy in Mount Pleasant, on donating games and books for a local senior care home.

The contest emerged from AEM members’ goal of promoting literacy during Reading Month in March while showing that even small efforts toward social justice can have a big impact. Supported by a grant from the National Education Association, members of the AEM Social Justice Committee titled the project “More Than a Land Acknowledgment.”

“We are Water Protectors,” the book that inspired the project, “is a culturally relevant and important addition to have on the shelves, since it shows how one person can stand up for the community they love by taking action and advocating for what is right and for the voices that have been historically silenced,” said Maya Murray, an AEM member who led the project and a junior studying elementary education at Michigan State University.

Utica second-grade teacher Casey Joss said she participated in the project with her students because it offered an authentic writing assignment that was both meaningful and intended for a real audience.

“This contest gave students a chance to practice their learning in ways that appeal to their interests and also will help them develop lifelong skills,” Joss said. “As an added bonus, they will see that even someone their age can make a difference in their community.”

Katie Kukulka, a senior elementary major at Western Michigan University, said it’s inspiring to watch young children engage with the world around them.

“Sometimes they just need the outlet or push to realize they can make change happen and advocate for something they care about,” Kukulka said.

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