My Voice My Community
Joyful Noise (and Respectful Listening)

The Sounds of a Community

What is the sound of over fifty 4th graders trying to agree on a single issue to address through service-learning with Need in Deed? If Joe Alberti and Chris Powers’ combined classroom at Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia is any indication, it’s the sound of students sharing facts that they have found through newly acquired research skills. It’s classmates trying out the power of a persuasive essay on each other. It’s young people comparing their strengths and divvying up tasks in small groups. And sometimes it’s the rhythm of an original rap … about litter?

“There are river otters in the Schuylkill! If we let pollution get in the river, they can get sick and die,” one girl explained urgently.

“I lived in a shelter. We should help homeless people, because if you help people get jobs, they can get a house and go to school,” a boy shared with his group.

“I wrote a rap about litter – can that be in our presentation?” another boy asked his teachers.

“If it persuades other people to vote for your cause, then yes it can,” answered Chris. He and Joe were guiding their students through the process of narrowing down the 5 broad topics (homelessness, violence/bullying, abusive relationships, animal abuse and the environment) they’d identified to a single issue. This process can be hard enough with just one class, so why did these partner teachers choose to make Need in Deed part of the curriculum for the entire 4th grade?

The structure of the 4th grade space at Powel Elementary is one reason – the two classrooms are separated by a removable partition, which makes it easy for the teachers to work together for group activities like reading aloud and science lessons, or to split apart again for math or reading groups.

But more importantly, as Joe explained, “It builds community. There always used to be a rivalry between the two 4th grade classes, for no reason. But now there’s no more rivalry.”

Once the students had written persuasive speeches and created posters in their small groups, Chris and Joe brought the group back together for the presentations. At that point, the only sound to be heard was the voice of whomever – teacher or student – was speaking. The students led the whole process, and, as Joe says, “It was amazing to see 9-year-old students making such deep, meaningful connections to their work!”

After days of research, writing, poster-making, and presenting, it was time for a silent vote … and a then a big cheer when their topic was announced: a combination of violence and bullying. Armed with facts and confident in their ability to persuade others to join the cause, the 4th graders of Powel Elementary are ready to make a difference in their classrooms and beyond.