Agents of Change: An ELA STEM Project


Flashback to high school: I’m sitting with one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Saey, working on a project and thinking to myself, “This is so cool!” I was working on a community service project I had researched and designed for my Advanced Marketing class. It was just about time to implement the project and see all my plans fall into place. I was nervous, but so unbelievably excited to not only see my ideas come to fruition, but to be making a difference in the lives of others.

Now fast forward a few years. I’m the teacher, trying to create that same feeling of empowerment for my own students. I wanted to do something with my sixth-graders, but wasn’t sure what that would look like. I experimented for awhile, combining the ingredients of STEM, problem-based learning (PBL), and inquiry learning (5 E’s) with cooperative learning and my passion for authentic learning experiences. Eventually, I found the right recipe and the Agents of Change project was born. 

After tweaking last year’s trial-run (done with the help of my fantastic friend and colleague, Sarah Polanc), I entered the newly-improved project into Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow STEM contest. Just this past Thanksgiving break, I found out the project qualified as a Missouri state finalist! 

So… want to know more?

  • Read my contest entry form below.
  • Click here for pictures and resources from last year’s #AgentsOfChange project. 
  • Stay tuned for more resources.
  • Comment below with questions!


Applicant’s Name: Hannah Johnson

Grade Level of Students Participating in Project: 6th Grade

School Name: Oakville Middle School

School Address (include city, state, ZIP):

Email Address:

Cell Phone Number:


Concept Overview:

What is the main idea of the activity that addresses the challenge: “Show how STEM can be applied to help improve your local community?”

The main idea of the Agents of Change project is to integrate STEM and 21st century skills into our English Language Arts classrooms. This authentic learning experience follows the engineering design process where students implement their own community service projects. First, they brainstorm current problems, ask questions, and do initial research. Next, they imagine and propose creative solutions. Then, each team researches and plans a service project by collaborating with community partners. After that, students create and implement their projects in small teams. They test their project ideas by requesting supplies, permissions, partners, etc., often having to problem-solve and think of creative alternatives when faced with roadblocks. Students prove they can follow through with their project by making adjustments and necessary changes. Finally, they reflect, analyze and share the resulting impact of their project, presenting their entire inquiry process at our Celebration Convention in late April or May. The entire project focuses around the driving question of: How can we can use our communication skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening to collaborate, to think critically about world problems, and to come up with creative solutions?


Please describe in detail the activities your students will participate in to achieve your anticipated goals.

Students brainstorm, research, and explore real-world problems. Then, they choose a specific problem and persuade the teacher to assign them to that team. With their small team, students research the problem, possible solutions, and find contact information for an “expert” in that field. They write invitations, create questions, and interview their expert in order to write a project action plan for their team. After that, students continue to collaborate with experts as well as adult volunteers to implement their project and document their successes and failures along the way. Students use their communication skills to call, email, or interact with adults to request permissions, gather supplies, and carry out each step of their project. They are required to use powerful language in advertising, collect data and document their journey.  Towards the end, students will write a speech and create a final presentation that shows their journey throughout the Agents of Change project. They will include evidence (sample writings, audio clips, video recordings, photos, etc.) for each of the following: the plan and how it changed, background research, long and short term group goals, daily reflections, problems the team faced and how they were solved, how students used collaboration (their team, other students, other schools, adults, community partners, parent volunteers, etc.), analysis of their impact, quantitative and qualitative data collected (represented with charts, tables, graphs), and more. Students will invite community partners, local news stations, parents, administration, and others as they share these presentations at the end of the year during our Celebration Convention. They will challenge their audience members to make a difference too.


What is the anticipated improvement to your local community?

Each of our 30 student teams is working with a community partner to spread awareness, raise funds, or collect supplies in order to benefit a variety organizations and/or causes. Six student groups are spreading awareness for topics such as natural disasters, pollution, mental illness, and bullying with a goal of reaching an audience of at least 2,000 people (in person and online). 19 student groups are raising funds for organizations such as Paraquad, Epworth, APA Adoptable Pets, Green Peace, Red Cross, CHADS Coalition, Kingdom House, St. Louis Zoo, Marine Mammal Center, and the Missouri Humane Society with a goal of $25,000 total dollars. A total of 10 students have a goal to volunteer at least four times throughout the year at Gateway 180 Homeless Shelter. One student group is trying to collect at least 300 pieces of used sports equipment for local teams in need. Another group is creating a display for the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum and possibly St. Louis Lambert International Airport with a goal of teaching at least 400 visitors about the problem of trash in space. Finally, we have a group working closely with Missouri Department of Conservation, Bass Pro, and Build-A-Bear to create a school sponsorship program with a goal of raising $100,000. They plan to do this by involving all 25+ local Saint Louis area school districts and then taking the project to a national level.


What are the assessments you will put in place to measure pre, during and post project? What tangible result can be produced within the contest timeframe?

Assessments will include various written components during each step of the project, along with observations and a final presentation. Each writing piece will be assessed on whichever writing standard we are working on at that time such as organization, style, word choice, conventions, etc. Pre-project writing pieces include: prior knowledge of STEM, initial research of real-world problems, topic proposal paragraph, in-depth research of problem and possible solutions, email invitation to community experts and parents, description of initial project idea, sequenced project action plan, and thank-you emails to community experts and parent volunteers. During the project, students will be assessed on written pieces such as: email or oral requests for permissions and supplies, advertisements and other persuasive writing, correspondence with community experts, invitations, and more. Towards the end, students will write a speech and create a final presentation that documents their journey throughout the Agents of Change project. Additionally, students will be assessed on their speaking skills during the presentation (volume, eye contact, professionalism, table layout and design, use of visuals and gestures, etc.) During our Celebration Convention, we will have experts and audience members help evaluate student presentations and use their feedback as part of each student’s final assessment score.

Additional Questions:

How did you originally hear about the Solve for Tomorrow contest?

I heard about this contest from a forwarded email that my principal sent out.

What was the most difficult part of applying to the Solve for Tomorrow contest?

Honestly, the whole application process was fairly simple and easy to complete.

Did you tell your principal before applying to the contest?

Yes, I wanted to let my principal know that I would be submitting our Agents of Change project.

Did you inform your students before submitting your application to Solve for Tomorrow?

No, telling them we were finalists was a surprise to the students.

What was the reaction from your school when you qualified as a state finalist?

The reaction from my school and community was very positive both in person, and on social media. Many teachers, parents, and other staff members were excited to have two teachers from our school qualify as state finalists.

Do you have any personal passion points or community groups you are committed to?

It is important students understand that no matter their age or ability, they have the power to make a difference and become Agents of Change. This project empowers students to move beyond our school into their community. When partnering with community groups, I believe it’s important for students to research choices and choose a group that they feel passionately about.


STEM: What is it? Why do it?


Last summer, I learned about STEM through a few Discovery Education workshops. It was a lot of information, a lot of ideas, and all a bit overwhelming. But when the request went out for STEM Innovators in our district, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to put my learning into practice. And it was! With each additional workshop and one-on-one training session with my STEM coach, I became more comfortable with STEM. I was energized enough to take everything to the next level.

So what is STEM?

To me, STEM education involves learning activities that are rooted in real world problems. The learning activities still address state standards, but also develop students’ 21st century skills, or the 4 C’s: communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Students follow the engineering process to ask questions, imagine possibilities, plan solutions, create prototypes, test their ideas, make improvements based on feedback, and finally share their learning. The activities stretch across the curriculum, covering big ideas that go beyond the classroom.

What STEM is to me

Sketchnotes on what STEM is to me.

What about the arts? What about ELA?

Well, an critical component of STEM education are the 4 C’s, two of those being creativity and communication. Creating new things is an integral part of the STEM process. Students design, build, make, and turn their ideas into reality. Communication is also a key part of STEM. That’s why I have no problem integrating STEM into my own ELA classroom. I also like to think of the engineering design process similar to the writing process. Students plan (prewrite), they create (draft), they test and improve (revise and edit), and finally share their work (publish).

Why try it?

For starters, the rewards of STEM were definitely worth any risks! Being a STEM innovator this year has had many positive benefits, but I think the most important impact is that I’ve shifted the learning to my students. They are the ones communicating more, solving problems, working collaboratively, and creating things beyond my expectations. STEM has taught me to take a step back and become a facilitator of student learning. STEM is a perfect umbrella for inquiry learning, problem based learning, constructivist teaching, and cooperative learning. It ties everything together into something meaningful. I think students are more engaged when they see real world connections, more willing to try when they see it’s okay to fail sometimes, and more active participants when they can make their own decisions about their learning within different projects.


How being a STEM Innovator has benefited me as an educator.

What are your thoughts on STEM?

Poetry Project Part 1: Introducing the Project


If you don’t already know a little bit about my poetry project, I’d suggest reading a general overview here.

Where to begin?

Part of STEM is understanding the design process. Most of my projects follow the same sequence of steps, the first being to ask8f2522dbc4ec7c57fcd4ca80a2b7fe9f_picture-engineering-design-process-clipart_831-642

Ask. Define the problem.

With this project, the problem is figuring out how students can use powerful language to inspire others. I introduce this problem through an Introduction Letter I copy and send home with students. First, we read it together in class. It outlines the task, the process, and the standards that will be covered. Poetry Project Part 1- Introduction Letter

The next step is to acknowledge the common misconception with students that powerful language is not just in poetry. However, poetry is the easiest and most common place to find powerful language. Poetry Project Part 1

After discussing that for a few minutes, I have students do a paper chat. If you’ve never done one before, I highly recommend it. I learned about this strategy from my Discovery Ed STEM coach.Poetry Project Part 1 (1)


For this activity, I had students walk around the room for about ten minutes, reading and writing their answers to questions such as:

  1. How can language be powerful?
  2. Why does language need to be powerful?
  3. Who uses powerful language?
  4. Where is powerful language found?
  5. What specific things (devices and techniques) make language powerful?

After returning to their seats, we discussed their ideas for each question. A lot of students made the connection to advertising, commercials, political speeches, etc. Being in middle school, most of my students were able to name at least a few of the devices uses (imagery, symbolism, similes, metaphors, etc.) On a side note, one of my classes is co-taught with several students below grade-level. I did provide that class with some scaffolding in the form of giving a few examples and writing them down on each poster before we began the paper chat. That seemed to help immensely.

Poetry Project Part 1: ExamplesOnce students watched one or two, I had them record some observations on a piece of paper as an exit ticket. They told me what the poet did to make the poem “powerful”. To challenge the students (eventually I did this for all my classes), I had them divide the paper into four and categorize their observations into the following sections:

Sound Devices:

What do you hear? (rhyme, music, alliteration, volume, rhythm, etc.)

Word Choice:

What is being said? (similes, metaphors, imagery, hyperbole, etc.)


What do you see? (visuals, camera angle, words, font, colors, gestures, etc.)


How does it begin and end? (introduce with a title, pausing between stanzas, ends with a challenge as music fades, etc.)

Because of time, we usually end up watching only a few poems the first day. Later on, the other examples are used as part of our warm up on work days (I’ll explain those in my next few posts.) In the meantime, stay tuned!

Here are the resources for my Poetry Project Part 1:

Poetry Project Part 1 – Lesson Plan (Google Slides)

Poetry Project Part 1- Introduction Letter (PPT handout)

Next up, Poetry Project Part 2: Choosing a Topic

Poetry Project Part 1

This includes an introduction letter, a paper chat activity, and example videos to kick start the project.

Poetry Project 2017: Collaborative Multimedia Poems


What is powerful language? How can it be used to inspire people?

Those were the two questions students investigated during this year’s poetry project. Back in January, I introduced the project and students were charged with a task:

TASK: Work collaboratively in a small group to create and present a multimedia poem that (1) creatively uses a combination of poetic devices and persuasive techniques and (2) effectively expresses an emotional or deep-felt message.

Spending one or two days a week since then, students completed the following process.

  1. Choose a meaningful message or topic. Form teams around similar topics. Share topic proposal paragraphs. Explain evaluation. Show examples for inspiration. 
  2. Work collaboratively to list and prioritize tasks to complete project.
  3. Research sound devices, word choice, presentation techniques, and other poetic devices using some Poetry Project Resources
  4. Plan, write, revise, and edit using this Planning & Drafting Template
  5. Publish final poem using student choice of technology.
  6. Finally, share with a live audience at our poetry premiere.


Check out some of our finished poems! (More to be added soon.)

The Kindness Project This group used iMovie and some very creative visuals.The Kindness Project.png

Change This group used movement to creatively illustrate their poem. Change.png

Beauty This group also used iMovie to showcase their excellent word choice.Beauty

Taking Chances This group included an interview with our school resource officer.Taking Chances

Risk This group used an iPad and a stop motion app to capture their hand-drawn visuals.Risk

Climate Change Rap Using the green screen, this group introduced and concluded their poem as a news report, complete with a special appearance by Mr. Earth.  Climate Change Rap.png

Animal Cruelty This group went to a local animal shelter to film their own footage.Animal Cruelty.png

Music This group used WeVideo and had passionate, fluent speaking voices.Music

Loss This group used the DoInk app with the green screen. They even included bloopers.Loss

Dance This group included sound effects… themselves tap dancing.Dance

Animal Cruelty This group used a variety of settings and facts about their topic. Animal Cruelty

Bullying This group had some great word choice! Bullying

Bullying This group had some creative combinations of sound devices and presentation techniques. Bullying.png

Friends Using iMovie, this group included great word choice. Friends

Those were only a few of the published poems. If you’d like to see more, visit my YouTube channel here.

Yes, this project took time, but the results were well worth it. Students were able to:

  • Conduct research projects using several sources to answer an essential question.
  • Engage in collaborative discussion, building on others’ ideas and expressing own ideas clearly
  • Follow rules for discussions, set specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles
  • Produce a clear and coherent poem in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience
  • Develop and strengthen poem by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach
  • Use figurative language such as metaphors, similes, personification, imagery, and hyperbole in a poem
  • Use specific word choice to illustrate the theme, mood, and tone of a poem
  • Synthesize information and present it in different formats
  • Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations
  • Present poem using appropriate eye contact, volume, and clear pronunciation

This summer, I plan on writing more about the process and posting a mini-series for those who might want to try this collaborative multimedia poetry project.

First, up: Poetry Project Part 1: Where to Begin

Student Selected Stations

Kahoot - Student Selected Stations

Ever have those days where it’s just not the right time to start a new unit? Well, today was one of those days. Our sixth-graders just finished two days of MAP testing. Pair that with the fact that half of our students were out all day on a band field trip. What did we do with the students we had left? We tried out something new.

Introducing… drum roll please… student selected stations!

It started with an idea from Rachel Jones, the science teacher on my team. She wanted to do some fun labs and demos that she wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. So her and I got to talking. (Side note: She is an awesome colleague to brainstorm and hash things out with!) Together we came up with this idea of turning the day into a sort of a station type thing. And at that point, Student Selected Stations was born!

The logistics were a bit tricky. But hey, I love a good puzzle. I brought the idea to the rest of our team teachers. They were immediately excited and on board. (Another shout out to Brittney Jungwaelter and Sarah Polanc for always being willing to try out new things!)

So what did we come up with? Here is an example of our shared Google Spreadsheet.

Each tab is a separate hour. Across the top, were the stations available in our classrooms that particular hour. The space below is where we signed up the students.
Here’s how each class period worked:

  1. Bell rang to start class. We took our normal attendance.
  2. We showed students the Google Spreadsheet and explained the choices for that particular hour.
  3. Randomly, we called on students one at a time. Each student made a choice and his or her name was typed onto our spreadsheet. The beauty of using Google is the ability for all of us to type at the same time.
  4. At the designated time, (we said 10 minutes, but we really only needed about 5), we sent the kids off to their stations with all their stuff. Once there, we took attendance again. Better to be safe than sorry!
  5. From that point on, we each explained the directions for our activities. Our class periods are 47 minutes long, so we still ended up with a good chunk of time to complete the station (about 30 minutes).
  6. At the end of class, students were dismissed to go to their next scheduled class.
  7. Repeat!

We had so much fun. Check it out!

Final thoughts:

Since so many students were gone, it was a great opportunity to try out a new structure such as this. This setup would work well for a whole grade-level teambuilding day or something similar.

How would you use this structure?