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Dr. Jennifer Ponder and students from Fred Ekstrand Elementary school in San Dimas

Jennifer Ponder, assistant professor of elementary and bilingual education, left, with students at Fred Ekstrand Elementary School who created a recycling project as part of their social studies curriculum.

Class Assignment Turns into Real-World Lesson for Graduate and her Young Pupils

Elementary Students Challenge Peers to Do Good Community Deeds

April 29, 2008

By Debra Cano Ramos

What started out as a class assignment for one of Jennifer Ponder's graduate students turned into a real-world lesson of how one elementary teacher taught her young pupils that they can make a difference in the lives of other people — and use technology to share their story.

Ponder, assistant professor of elementary and bilingual education, challenged her graduate students to come up with a project for their classroom that exemplifies civic education and service-learning as part of an assignment for a social studies method course she teaches.

"Dr. Ponder designed this project to encourage teachers to provide their students with opportunities to engage in authentic learning experiences. Students choose an issue that is important to them, design a plan of action to solve the problem, and follow through with a real-world solution," said Karen Ivers, chair and professor of elementary and bilingual education.

For one of Ponder's students, Catherine Calderon Rojas, an elementary school teacher, the class assignment didn't end with her course. Calderon Rojas in turn challenged her class of fourth and fifth grade students to get involved in a community service project as part of their social studies curriculum.

The students at Fred Ekstrand Elementary School in San Dimas came up with an idea that has spiraled into something larger than anyone ever imagined. The young students decided to raise money to help pay for surgery needed by a local toddler with a rare form of facial paralysis that affects facial movements. The surgery would enable the girl to smile.

To raise money, the students started a school-recycling project, and over the last 19 months, raised more than $10,000 toward the surgery costs by collecting plastic bottles, cans and glass. Their goal: to raise $50,000. Today, the students have established a community-recycling center where school families and community members can drop off recyclables.

Calderon Rojas, who earned her master's in education with an emphasis in curriculum and instruction in January, turned her class's project into her master's thesis, "Civic Education in the Elementary Classroom." The project has not only been successful in raising money, but also in elevating students' personal and academic growth.

"It has helped to build student motivation, self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy. My students have wanted to come to school every day; the absentee rate has dropped dramatically," Calderon Rojas said. "The students have learned how to get a job done and how they can make a difference, which is not something that arises from a normal social studies textbook education."

The elementary students also formed community partnerships with local businesses, spoke at city council meetings, wrote to legislators and educated their peers about recycling and helping the environment.

"By designing a plan of action that addressed an issue that was important to them, the students learned about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of this world, began to view themselves as agents of change, and realized that their voice can make a difference, which are the main goals associated with my class assignment," Ponder said.

Ponder is delighted that her class assignment transcended into a real-life civics lesson. She was so inspired, she volunteered to give guidance to Calderon Rojas and her students, from assisting the students in using technology to providing advice to Calderon Rojas on her thesis.

Additionally, Ponder collaborated with them to collect empirical data to document the impact this project had on their civic knowledge, skills and dispositions.

"I became involved and attached to the project because it was the core of what I was teaching in my class," Ponder said. "Often, as professors, we don't know if our students connect the theory presented in our courses to actual practice in their classrooms. But this particular student passionately embraced her new knowledge and became the model for translating theory into practice."

To extend the project, the elementary students, with their teacher and Ponder's help, decided to share their story through a Web site ( and blog to help challenge and encourage other children to "Pay It Forward,'' another way of saying "pass it on," in their communities.

Ponder also oversaw the students' production of a documentary video where they wrote the script, shot the footage and used technology, such as iMovie, to produce it. She spent countless hours editing the video in the College of Education's new state-of-the-art podcasting studio. DVD's, showing how the project was done, have been sent to 50 elementary schools in each state in hopes of inspiring other students to be good citizens and to get involved with issues touching their community.

"I'm using interactive technology in my classes in an attempt to model to my students how technology can enhance instruction in their classrooms and make their teaching more engaging," Ponder said. "When you allow kids to communicate via technology and create projects through technology, you take learning to the next level."

Calderon Rojas said her hope is that the project will serve as an example to her peers to take learning one step further.

"I hope that other teachers will see that it is possible to do a service-learning project within the course of the school day and that it can still be within the context of the state education standards," she said. "Dr. Ponder has been very inspiring to me and my students. She really believes in project-based learning and that there is room for fun and creativity in the classroom. She's so open to the possibilities of education, and now, so am I.

"This project has changed my teaching methods for the rest of my career. I feel comfortable in venturing outside a textbook-focused curriculum and implementing a project-based class where students have a say in what they learn."

For Ponder, after serving as the facilitator for this project and conducting her own research in Calderon Rojas' classroom, she too is convinced of one thing: "Children can be active citizens of this world and make a big difference in the lives of other people."

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