Black dots representing possible hazardous waste sites were sprinkled like black pepper across the large wall map of Salt Lake City at Jackson Elementary. My students exploded with interest when they discovered one of the sites was three blocks from their school. The children were studying groundwater, when they learned that water could be contaminated by toxic chemicals.
So began our hazardous waste project, which lasted three years and taught me and the children how to conduct social action to make a difference in the community. The children gave speeches, passed a petition, conducted surveys, interviewed people, and worked with the Utah Legislature—and Representative Ted Lewis (no relation) and Senator Rex Black—to create the state’s first super fund for the cleanup of hazardous waste.
Another community problem solving project lead my students to plant hundreds of trees across the state. Again calling on the help of the state legislature, they established a fund for children across the state to plant trees—resulting in thousands of new tree plantings. Working with Senator Orrin Hatch, the children succeeded at getting the American the Beautiful Act amended so that kids all over the United States could apply for beautification grants in their states.
Many of my students had been chased by gangsters welding knives, and some of them and their family members had been shot at with guns. Interested in fighting crime in their area, the students also supported three tough anti-crime laws that sailed through the legislature with their help. They placed a crime-clue box in the school media center—where students or their parents could place anonymous clues to crimes. The principal solved at least three small crimes from those clues, including stopping a gang fight and identifying the person who had secretly painted graffiti on the walls of the school.
The students established a hotline for abused kids and distributed 5,000 stickers with the phone number to students in Salt Lake City School District. Brainstorming additional projects, they produced anti-child-abuse slogans which were aired on television. One was reproduced on a billboard near their school, with one student’s slogan, “You always lose if you choose to abuse.”
Other anti-crime projects included lobbing city officials to clean up a drug house across the street from the school. After it was torn down, the students were allowed to put up a few walls in the new low-cost housing replacement. And with the help of the police, they painted over graffiti in the area and put up drug-free school zone signs around the school.
A few years later, we moved to Park City, where I began the gifted program in that school district. Naturally I introduced community problem solving as one of the many components of the program. Students put up flashing school zone signs placed near their school. Other students raised money for Swaner Park. Others conducted a survey on the causes of violence among students and presented it to the State Legislature, while others developed a Website for student votes during a national election.
One of the greatest rewards for this type of problem solving is that as students reach out to reduce and solve problems in their areas, the whole process rolls back to them, and they learn self-confidence, a feeling of empowerment, and a better ability to control their own lives.