The journey began last Thursday as we piled on to the bus at 5:30am. I was expecting a few moans and groans about the early take off, but was only met with eager and enthusiastic comments as we loaded suitcases, pillows, blankets and jewelry making equipment. The ten hour travel time flew by as we watched movies, chatted and played games and I was amazed since I’ve been on much shorter bus rides with students that seemed to last for eons!
Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial which seemed so fitting as the purpose is to show pride in our past and faith in our future. The monument itself soars 270 feet high and I was so moved to be there in the presence of students who have learned how to soar themselves. Etched on granite walls are the three core values of the Air Force.: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. I read aloud the following quote on the wall: The future is always decided by those who put their imagination to work, who challenge the unknown, and who are not afraid to risk failure.An eighth grade student standing next to me said, “That’s us Mrs. Roberts isn’t it?” That was the first of many teary moments I had in the presence of these giants over the next few days.
Walking into the conference hotel at 7am on Saturday morning heading a group of thirty children caused quite a stir. As people stopped and stared at us I saw my students shoulders go back and their chins go up. They realized for the first time the true significance of their presence there and they immediately adopted a demeanor that they maintained throughout the remainder of the trip. They were proud to be invited, to share their incredible story, promote their project and to represent their school, which they did impeccably. They set up their booth with no adult direction or assistance and began to engage passing adults and making jewelry to sell. As each team rotated through their booth shift I was amazed at how well they articulated their passion and commitment.
I hope this Halloween stands out in their memories as much as it will stand out in mine. Dressed in their costumes we embarked on a nighttime tour of the war memorials and the Lincoln memorial and they managed to remain respectful, deferential and deeply interested in what the tour guide was telling us. So many of them during that tour thanked me for the opportunity and told me how glad they were that they gave up their usual trick or treating routine to be there.
The next day, despite being tired they were outstanding during their presentation. They so eloquently demonstrated to other teachers what is possible when teachers get out of the way and let students explore their passions and curiosities and allow them to fail forward. Feedback from attendees included:
"Empower and trust the students! Fail Forward! Outstanding, Meaningful, and all around Inspiring!"
"Each of you did a great job presenting. I'm inspired to listen to my students and step back to follow their lead."
"I want to make our service learning more meaningful. You guys are awesome!"
The students' own reflections included:
"In Washington I learned that our project is not only raising money for Chilipula, but showing the world that no project is too big for kids." Vivian, 6th grader.
" I learned what can happen when a group comes together for a good cause. I learned that sometimes kids can do things that adults can't, and we should all step up to that." Helen, 7th grader.
"If you give students a voice through a meaningful project they will each become a leader in their own way." Jake, 6th grader.
I can honestly say I have never been prouder as an educator! Despite the fact that this group consisted of 3-8 graders, some of whom had never really met before, they bonded together in their dedication to Project Cope. For me personally, it was a joy to bring together past and present students and be able to see how much they have learned and grown. Their true character was reflected in the way they interacted with each other and the attendees of the conference. There were too many examples of kindness, perseverance, integrity, honesty and responsibility for me to mention but I will treasure every one.
This trip would not have been possible without the support of the BCS PTSA and the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF). Their financial support made it possible for all our students to participate in this incredible learning experience. When character.org asked for our students to present at the national forum they never imagined we would bring 30!
A special thanks to the parents and staff members who chaperoned this trip. The logistics involved in navigating a group of 30 middle schoolers through a two day national conference was overwhelming but their willingness to do whatever it takes and ability to support one another is what makes BCS such a great place to be.
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Tamra Nast our school counselor who worked tirelessly with Cindy Balicki to make this opportunity a reality for our students. Principal Mark Morawski thank you for supporting the trip and Linda Stone , and Mat Brown thank you for joining us and being amazing colleagues that I am lucky to work with every day.
The theme of the conference was inspiring greatness. These giants, these students, inspire me every day. Who inspires you? More importantly, how do you inspire others?