Updated: Apr 6
When third grade teacher Erika Martin attended a professional development last summer, she had no idea of the positive opportunities it would lead her to in the months that followed. Martin, who will be starting her eighth year of teaching this year at East Brainerd Elementary School, participated in PEF's Teacherpreneur last year, where she pitched her idea for My Voice, a student activism program for upper elementary level students. The idea for My Voice began when Martin attended a PD through the TN Education Association's Summer Leadership Academy. While there, Martin met a fellow educator who led a session on activism based on a program she hosted for high school students. After that session, Martin contemplated what this idea of student activism would look like on an elementary level.
Over the past year, Martin has included 20 fourth and fifth grade students from her school into the program, and she is contemplating adding third grade students next year. "The goal for My Voice is to create informed, vocal members of the community," shared Martin, "whether it is the school community or Chattanooga community, I want these students to be able to realize the power in their voice. Even though they're young, I want them to understand that they can speak up about problems and issues that they see surrounding them."
Martin spent time teaching these students what activism is and why it is important. "I showed them several examples of young activists and kids around their age that have been making positive changes in their community," Martin said. She encouraged students to lead their own conversations about topics they were passionate about learning. Martin also provided them reading and research material from sources like Scholastic News, with goals of incorporating news material that related to kids of their age. What also helped support more of a real-world scenario was a presentation Martin created that showed the group other students their age contributing to their community. For example, a student who collected items for children who were affected by Hurricane Katrina or students who collected toys to give to their local hospital for children in need. This helped students participating in My Voice understand what activism is and how they could be activists at their age. Throughout the program, students focused on topics such as anti-smoking, childhood obesity, recycling, anti-bullying, depression, and the homeless population that affects both people and animals. Martin continually emphasized to her class, "even if we don’t reach the ultimate goal of having everyone stop smoking or all kids having a healthy diet and exercising, the little steps that we take toward that goal matter, too. Progress is all part of the process."
My Voice had eight productive meetings throughout the year, primarily hosted at TechTown. The students really enjoyed meeting at TechTown, and Martin hopes to continue to host their meetings in this space. "TechTown has so many great resources, and I’m trying to incorporate the technology and STEM aspects," Martin said. "I want them to have those skills and be able to tie them into topics of activism, speaking up, and making a change."
In addition to PEF, Leadership Chattanooga was also a wonderful support with student projects, attending meetings and engaging with students about their research. When students began to share their presentations, Leadership Chattanooga volunteers helped provide feedback. This included sharing ‘glows & grows’ with each other - a glow being something students did well and a grow being constructive feedback. "It was great for them to hear feedback from other people, besides a fellow peer," said Martin. "I noticed many of the kids really blossomed with their communication and public speaking skills and that they were excited to share what they learned. Many of them wrote on their feedback surveys that they have confidence in the way they speak now. That outcome is what I was striving for, but it’s hard to measure that from the outside looking in. The fact that they can verbalize that now is what I was aiming for, and it was a great feeling to witness them gain that confidence."
The homelessness topic was chosen by students as their group cause, which included developing a service project. This was the focus of their last few meetings. “We hosted a food drive for homeless people and homeless animals in Chattanooga and collected over 1,400 items in one week," said Martin. "It was a great way to show that other people see this as an issue, too." Martin and the students donated all the collected items to local homeless and local animal shelters, including the Chattanooga Rescue Mission and the Humane Educational Society of Chattanooga. "It was great to see all that we collected, be able to deliver it all, and see the smiles on people’s faces," shared Martin. With the food drive, they had to figure out where they were going to donate the items, which items they needed, and how they were going to motivate students to donate. As an incentive for the school's students to continue to bring in donated items each day, Martin and My Voice students incorporated a prize of donuts for the class with the most donations throughout the entire school. Three students traveled around the school with grocery carts, collecting the donated items from each class and keeping track of every item that was donated on their check-list. Tasty Donuts provided three dozen donuts to the winning class for free, which was a second-grade class that collected over 100 items. "We even had students bring in donated items after the drive was over because they were still so motivated," said Martin.
At their student showcase last May, My Voice students had the opportunity to share their individual causes with the community. Each student had a tri-fold that they decorated in relation to their cause. Some students also incorporated computers where they showed videos or played background music to support their topic. "People came up to the students at the showcase, asking them about their displays, and the kids were able to speak about their research," Martin said. "Having the people come to them also helped with their nerves. The students seemed really confident, because they were knowledgeable and took the time to do the research and practice their speeches.” Part of what students prepared in their presentation was a ‘Call to Action’. For example, a student who presented recycling as her cause had a call to action for people to participate in a green steps program. The action steps varied based on what the students’ causes were, but they all had to have some type of plan. "This 'Call to Action' step helped students learn that others can also put their plan toward good use instead of having it fizzle out," said Martin.
Martin continued to share what the student showcase experience was like for her and her students. "At the student showcase, the parents and community showing up just validates that people want to hear what these kids have to say. These students have deeper thoughts than what they're watching on television. You just have to really talk with them to see what they’re passionate about and what they’re aware is going on around them." Martin also encourages the community to promote student voice, sharing, "We've got to do better in recognizing student voice and giving them an opportunity to use it. They are the future and we don’t want the future to be a group of people who just sit back, notice the problems, and do nothing about them. You can’t just notice a problem, you need to be a problem solver. Take action, and figure out where that action is and how you can be a part of it."
The students' last lesson, called ‘Continuing the Work’, had them share how they will continue advocating for their cause once the program ends. Or, if they have decided there is another cause they feel strongly about, how they will ensure other people are informed. "I don’t want what they learn to stop here," said Martin. "I want them to keep informing others of what they learn and keep speaking up. For these students, being able to speak in front of their peers is already one hurdle to jump over, and you can definitely see growth in their confidence level and their passion about the work."
Martin credits the PEF Teacherpreneur program for helping her bring the idea for My Voice to life. "I wouldn’t have known how to go about doing this on my own," shared Martin. "Having the ability to pitch my idea with PEF and turning this concept into something real by receiving funds through Teacherpreneur was just mind-blowing. This was something that was just a little idea in my head last year, and now it’s something that is strongly affecting the lives of students involved in the program, as well as the teachers who helped me. It was truly an amazing experience that I hope to continue. "
Martin shared that a Leadership Chattanooga volunteer enrolled her daughter in the summer camp Martin hosted at TechTown last month, telling her, “My daughter has all these great ideas, and she needs to know how to put them into action. I know your program is going to help with that." The volunteer's feedback hit home for Martin. "It helps me see that people see the value in My Voice," she shared. "I feel so blessed to be able to take part in the Teacherpreneur program and have the ability to sit here today sharing that I’ve completed the first round of it. I’ve learned so much, and I cannot wait to go forward with trying to host another year. I’m really getting the wheels turning and figuring out how I can grow and sustain My Voice as a program."
Encouraging students to speak up, advocate for a cause they're passionate about, and learn or improve social skills along the way are all traits that are having a positive impact to student and community culture through My Voice. Thanks to Erika Martin for driving this program from the beginning and for motivating students to give back to their community and fellow peers. We hope you continue to expand your program and continue to leave a lasting impression on future students and community members involved in this opportunity!
*Contributed photos from My Voice.