While winter is just around the corner, the Chagrin Falls Middle School students and staff already have their sights set on the pool.

The annual Cardboard Rec Regatta will reach its third year come May, but talks are already underway for the seventh-grade interdisciplinary STEM project as teachers and staff look for ways to improve the project after having the opportunity to present it at the 2019 Ohio Middle Level Association conference in Columbus. The team received the 2019-2020 Outstanding Component Award for Interdisciplinary Curriculum at the two-day conference starting Nov. 7 for the project.

The seventh-grade team – made up of Brian Johnson, team leader and math intervention specialist; Teachers Larry Richmond, social studies; Brook Campbell, Spanish; Cindy Dean, science; Jessica Johnson, English; Janet Adamoski, language arts intervention specialist; Courtney Polcar, honors English; and Alison Hinesman, math – agree that the project is a group effort, but it’s one that would not be possible without the community’s support and students’ passion.

The project starts in April for the students, but planning begins as early as January as the team begins budgeting and seeking out sponsors for the program, said Mr. Johnson. By February, they seek out guest speakers and begin collecting supplies like cardboard and duct tape for building the boats. In March, Ms. Polcar and Mrs. Johnson introduce the project to the students through reading in their English language arts classes.

Last year, the students read the book “A Long Walk to Water,” by Linda Sue Park, and “I Will Always Write Back,” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Liz Welch and Martin Ganda, which both tell the stories of those suffering from hunger and a lack of access to clean water in other countries.

After reading the book, the STEM project officially kicks off with an assembly, guest speakers and the start of fundraising in April as students work to raise $15,000 for the nonprofit Water for South Sudan. The students met that goal last year, and as a result, the construction of a well is slated to begin this winter for a village in South Sudan, Mr. Johnson said.

Looking back at the first year of the project, Ms. Polcar said that while the team had already been in talks of doing the interdisciplinary project, she said the students, who are now freshmen, were really the ones who spearheaded the project.

“The kids had emailed us and come to us or saying in class that they were so inspired by the book,” she said. Before Ms. Polcar and Mrs. Johnson could introduce the project to the students, Ms. Polcar said, “They were already saying to us, ‘We want to do something. Can we do something?’”

“They spearheaded this (project),” Mrs. Johnson said. “They went totally in; totally blew us away with how into it they got.”

“They started a tradition,” Ms. Campbell said,” and our community loves tradition.”

Mrs. Johnson said that the first year the kids were able to raise $5,000 in just three days and ended the project having raised $12,000.

“I think for our kids, it’s important to explore how the real world is and how the world outside of Chagrin [Falls] is,” Ms. Hinesman said of the students. “This gives them a big picture, and I think it also sets them up to be successful, lifelong givers.”

Mr. Richmond expressed that Chagrin Falls Education Foundation and its student board, who donated $1,000 both years to the project to help cover the cost of supplies and awards, are crucial to the project’s success. Mr. Johnson agreed, saying it wouldn’t be possible to have the project be as big as it is without the support it received from both the Education Foundation and the parents.

The team mentioned that they are also thankful to the school’s flexibility in giving them time to meet in the mornings to extend their curriculum between classes, even beyond the interdisciplinary project.

“We would not be able to the big fanatic units that we do without having time to work together,” Ms. Adamoski.

With time together, comes improvement.

“We’re always looking to improve,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mrs. Johnson said they want to put more focus on the style of fundraising. “Just the way that they present the issue and why we’re fundraising, making sure that they have a speech prepared,” she explained.

Ms. Adamoski said she’s like to bring more awareness to local water crises. “Most of the kids, when we start researching, don’t think there are any water crises in the U.S.,” she said. “Is there something that we could do to extend that so that they’re taking initiative?”

As for the award, the team agrees that they are honored to receive the recognition.

“It’s an honor to work in a group like this and be recognized, because I think a lot of teams around Ohio do good work,” Ms. Dean said.

“I also think that it shows our commitment to our students and to each other that these are all things we do above and beyond our daily commitment to teaching and all the things that go into teaching,” Ms. Adamoski said.

“The best thing about it is not just they won the award and they went down and they accepted it, but they shared with other people around the state of how they did it,” Principal Laila Discenza said of the team. “The team benefited all the kids here, and they’re now benefiting kids from across the state because there were so many other teachers that heard about it and then even wrote back and said, thanks for this presentation.

“Their reach was far beyond what they thought it was going to be for this community,” she added. “I thought that was really spectacular.”

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