Maxwell Spanish Immersion Elementary School teacher Michelle Tudor knows that sometimes the best lessons are those that are unplanned. And sometimes, the best learning happens when students are allowed to find a passion and run with it.
Just before Thanksgiving, Tudor was leading her fifth-grade class in a discussion of Fever 1793, a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson that details the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia.
Tudor explained to her students that the disease was spread by mosquitoes, though people didn't know that then.
Then one of her students, James Bryant, raised his hand and mentioned that he had learned at his church that in Africa today, a child dies every 30 seconds of malaria, another mosquito-borne illness. Through his church, Consolidated Baptist in Lexington, James had raised money for Nothing But Nets, a non-profit campaign to collect money to buy and distribute mosquito nets to help save lives throughout Africa.
That's all it took to turn a simple reading unit on American history into a modern-day fund-raising campaign to help battle malaria halfway around the world.
Soon Maxwell's three other fifth-grade classes learned about the project and wanted to take part. In a matter of days, all of Maxwell's 65 fifth-graders got busy doing research about Nothing But Nets, a cooperative of the United Nations Foundation that was launched in 2006 by Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. They researched statistics on malaria — how it is spread, how many it kills, how it can be stopped.
They put their research findings on poster board and on Dec. 8 broke into teams to present what they'd learned to Maxwell's kindergarten through fourth-grade classes, challenging each grade to raise enough to buy one or two $10 nets.
"Once we told the other classes about the project and how it only costs $10 to save lives, they all said, 'That's so easy. We can do that,'" said James, 10.
"This was such an opportunity for us to make that connection to the kids, that things that happen in history still go on in the world today, but now we can do something about them," Tudor said.
The fund-raiser soon turned into a good-natured competition among the classes, each wanting to outdo the other.
Some students donated their allowances. Others collected at churches. Eli Schaub, 10, one of Tudor's fifth-graders, raised $126 going door-to-door in his Bell Court neighborhood with a handmade flier about the project.
"He came home so excited about how he was going to go out and collect money for this cause," Eli's mom, Amanda Reid, said. "When we got on the Internet and saw pictures of children and families dying from malaria, it made him want to do it even more. He's always had a big heart, and this project really spoke to him."
Maxwell students have raised just over $600 for Nothing But Nets — far exceeding their original goal of $400.
And they're not finished.
The school's fifth-graders will continue raising money this month by selling hot chocolate before school and at lunch and donating the proceeds to their Nothing But Nets fund-raiser. In addition to helping a good cause, the tasks of forming an assembly line to produce and sell the hot chocolate efficiently, determining how much the product should cost and how much profit they can anticipate all tie into lessons from the economics unit the fifth-graders are covering this month, Tudor said.
"For me, this has been the most personal activity the students have done," said fifth-grade teacher Kim Durbin. "They've been so eager to go deeper and learn more. It has sparked an interest and an awareness in them beyond their own little world. The project has helped them relate more to U.S. history and also to learn more about the history, culture and economics of Africa — and why it is that families there can't afford to buy the $10 nets themselves."
Fifth-grade reading intervention teacher Jenny Leahy helped students during the research phase of their project. She was amazed at their passion, she said. Many students wondered why they'd not heard about Nothing But Nets before and looked for ways they could spread awareness the effort.
"Once we gave them a glimpse of life in Africa, the students just ran with it," Leahy said. "Their desire (to help) was there from the start. We can educate them, but we can't light the fire in their hearts. That came from them."
"The beauty of this project is that it came from our kids," Maxwell principal Heather Bell said. "One of the special things about our school is that we consciously nurture our students' compassion and desire to help others, and we empower them to feel like they can make a difference."
With this project, "not only are students learning about instructional material, they are applying what they learn to help solve a problem," Bell said. "It's a perfect example of real-world learning, wrapped in a good cause."