Putting Down Roots

Inspiring Young Problem-Solvers

“What do you think is a problem in your community? What do you think you could make better?” These are some of the questions Denise, an elementary educator for 36 years, asks her students.

Empowering students to think for themselves and find their own voices is her passion, and she credits service learning with opening her eyes to how to unlock students’ potential. “Get children interested while they’re young … tug on their empathy strings, and you let them tell you.”

For the past 15 years Denise has taught in the New York City neighborhood of South Jamaica, Queens, at a 100% Title 1 and Title 3 school where students face significant economic and linguistic challenges. She says she wants to help her students see that they can “be the light” in what may be a “very dark space.”

That’s why she chose Roots & Shoots.

My hope and my wish for every student would be to find something about which they are passionate.

Denise, Roots & Shoots Educator
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Denise - Educator 2With Denise facilitating, nineteen first graders calling themselves The Baby Janes and eight fifth-graders, The Roots & Shoots Service Learning Girls, came together in an inspiring project. They observed feral cats outside their school, and together, they took action, identifying a local organization that would humanely trap the cats, vaccinate and spay or neuter them, and returns them to where they were found. The students helped families at their school obtain the same free veterinary services for their pets. And to help the feral cats survive the winter, students created shelters out of styrofoam coolers lined with materials like straw. Their efforts were recognized as a Roots & Shoots Project of the Month.

The students led the entire project. “They were running the show. I really was just the adult facilitator,” says Denise. “That’s the point. And it was a beautiful thing to behold.”

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Beyond the impact on the community is the profound effect such projects have on the students themselves, says Denise: “They are going to love science. They are going to love animals. They are going to know that they are the future, and they are the voters, and they are the people who are the keepers of this planet.”

Her students developed skills that will last a lifetime:

· Sense of self, agency and of their own power;

· Ability to communicate effectively with peers and adults; and

· Teamwork skills and an embracing of differences.

She also notes that students come to understand the multiplying effect that positive choices can have: They discover their own strengths and maybe some of their weaknesses, she says. They identify partners who complement what they’re able to do, they form groups, and they form friendships and bonds.

But ultimately, says Denise, “my goal was to try to teach compassion.” That’s the big payoff she tries to convey to her students: “The eye on the prize is that you do the right thing, the good thing, the kind thing, the compassionate thing.”

For other educators who want to incorporate service-learning programs like Roots & Shoots she offers a few words of advice: Get students outside—even just to walk around the school grounds, practice what you preach to build trust and credibility, and never give up!

If you’re looking for a way to get kids out into their community to observe their surroundings either in person or virtually, check out our menu of Community Mapping Tools.
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In 2016, Denise was inspired to start a Roots & Shoots program at her school when she met Dr. Jane Goodall at an event in the Bronx. Like Dr. Jane, Denise, who has a background in forestry, always connected with nature and animals—“two-legged, four-legged, finned, furred, and shelled,” she says. She loves to inspire that same connection in her students.

To kick off their project, Denise introduced her Roots & Shoots group to community mapping. “Where do you live? What’s the name of your county? What’s the name of your state?” she asked. “So it starts in your own backyard,” she explains, “it progresses across the street to the park, where you see urban wildlife and your own pets, and now you start to look at the bigger picture.” Students identified their favorite animals and where they live, the continents, the oceans. Using the Roots & Shoots Digital Community Mapping Guide, they realized they wanted to focus their service-learning on helping homeless animals around them.

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