How Elementary School Students Found Their Voice and Became Changemakers

Students presenting their posters in the park

How Elementary School Students Found Their Voice and Became Changemakers

It’s a bright spring morning in the park, where a group of McGuffey Montessori Elementary students stand proudly beneath their posters. These 1st - 3rd graders are here as part of a gallery walk, and they are eager to speak as changemakers about the problems they wish to solve.

Many express concern about the environment and animal rights. Others hope to end inequality, homelessness, racism, bullying, and more. Kieran, one of the students present, is alarmed about the many detrimental effects of pollution.

“We should replace normal cars with electric cars, and plant more trees, and make factories more sustainable because they are one of the main problems,” Kieran says. “Pollution is killing the environment. It’s harder to breath and polar bears are dying. I don’t think enough people are worried about polar bears because they say, ‘Oh well, it’s not us.’”

The issues are diverse, but they all have one thing in common. They are part of a project that was driven almost entirely by the children themselves. Their only parameter was to identify a problem in their world. And their teacher, Alli Huff ’18, ‘20, a McGuffey Montessori educator and Miami University teacher education alumna, is thrilled with the depth and initiative her students have displayed.student standing under poster

“Originally, we thought they would choose something small like, ‘I want a bigger backyard,’” Huff says. “But they chose these global problems, and we realized that they were getting really passionate about it. Of course, it's at a developmentally appropriate level, but they do really care. They chose some incredible topics, and they clearly can do amazing things.”

The gallery walk began as part of a unit on changemakers, which covered people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Jane Goodall, and Harriet Tubman, and how their desire to change the world began when they, too, were young children.

“It was about teaching them to advocate for something that mattered to them and how they can use their voice to do it,” Huff says. “I could have just contained it to a classroom conversation, but I worked under incredible teachers at Miami like Sheri Leafgren and Brian Schultz. They taught me how to take these moments to go farther by following them and saying, ‘Okay, well, what do you want to do?’ Then I just helped plan what they had already envisioned.”

What they wanted to do was to stand up for what they believed in, to spread awareness, and to make a difference. So Huff used the gallery walk as an opportunity to help students both build knowledge and to become engaged, active citizens.

“Just talking to people about what we’re doing today is a way to help,” says Max, while pointing to his poster about discrimination. “Discrimination hasn’t been good to the world. It’s not fair or equal. So I decided that I should talk about how bad discrimination is.”

By taking such an active role in the process, Huff says her students also became co-curriculum creators, and she credits Schultz’s book, Teaching in the Cracks, as another inspiration behind this student-centered approach.student presenting poster

“What we often miss with young children is that they have interests and curiosities and questions, and that can be the starting point for curriculum,” Schultz says. “They not only have the ability to name a problem that concerns them, or their community, but also have the potential to work on solving that problem. And when we provide space for students to engage in co-construction of curriculum alongside their teachers, they rise to the occasion.”

This also aligns with what Schultz calls “inverting the curriculum,” which allows educators to move beyond standard worksheets or memorization assignments, and instead use student interests and curiosities by organically weaving in additional subjects.

Leading up to the gallery walk, Huff also integrated creative writing and language lessons into the project. As students were becoming changemakers and advocates, they also learned how to craft speeches, give effective presentations, answer interview questions, and interact with the public.

While this approach is more common in a Montessori environment, it is possible in public schools and even in settings where teachers can sometimes feel constricted by standards and mandates from the state, district, or local school level.

“Oftentimes, there is an interpretation of mandates and standards that is quite narrow,” says Schultz. “But curriculum can be mapped back to those mandates through projects that honor the children by listening to their voices. So it's not disregarding some mandate. It's focusing curriculum on their questions, and then thinking about how to address reading and writing, math and science, and social studies through that curriculum.”

It can also generate a far more impactful learning experience that will resonate with students long after they leave the classroom.

“They feel so capable, which is the most incredible part,” Huff says. “And we want them to know that they are capable, amazing humans who are going to go do incredible things in the world.”