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.


Badge Boards: Allowing More Time for what Matters Most


As a teacher, my biggest wish is more time.

More time to meet with students one on one. More time to fine tune lessons to specific students’ needs. More time to look at data and really use it to drive decisions. More time to build relationships with my students.

I might have found a solution. Thanks to a random Twitter Chat I participated in (still learning how to do those), I was introduced to something called “Gamification”, or similarly “Game-Based Learning”.

Essentially, it’s using games to engage students in activities online and off. The ideas is to pose questions as challenges or quests. Students practice skills and are rewarded with different levels, badges, special items, a class currency, etc. If you’d like to learn more about gamification or game-based learning here are some great sites to check out:

Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going

The Difference between Gamification and Game-Based Learning

After reading and researching, I’ve come up with the idea of what I like to call “Badge Boards”. While the majority of my students are working independently (or collaboratively) within this Badge Board site, I am free to pull small groups, conference with students, but most importantly… HAVE MORE TIME!

The beauty of using Badge Boards is that my students are engaged in fun, game-like activities that are personalized (and differentiated) to meet their own learning needs.

So what are Badge Boards? Let me show you. But, please keep in mind these resources are still in their early stages. They’re a work in progress. They’re subject to changes. They still require work.

Here is the home screen with a brief overview of Badge Boards.

Badge Boards

On the left, students can navigate to the table of contents for all the literature skill badges, language skill badges, discussion skill badges, and behavior badges. Here are the different badges available for each subject area. (Badges are based on Missouri standards and skills for sixth graders.)

Badge Boards (1).jpg

Badge Boards (2)

Badge Boards (5)

Badge Boards (4).jpg

When students click on a button, it will take them to a list of available challenges. Students have a choice of which challenges they’d like to do. They can choose to work independently or with a small team. The challenges are differentiated to include a variety of learning styles as well as different levels of difficulty.

Challenges - Unknown Words.jpg

Here are some examples of various challenges. Some challenges are online games or tutorials that give immediate feedback. Not all challenges will require a computer, though. My goal for blended learning this year is to use technology as much as possible, but that isn’t always realistic. Some challenges will be comprised of completing task cards, or other classwork that has an immediate feedback component. My plan is to keep adding activities as the year progresses. Hopefully, I can recruit my ELA colleagues to contribute some of their activities.

Challenges - Unknown Words (1).jpg

Challenges - Unknown Words (3).jpg

Challenges - Unknown Words (4)

Once students have submitted proof of three completed challenges, they can request a master-level badge. For my higher learners, they can complete five challenges and request an expert-level badge. I don’t have the request form created yet, but it will be a Google Form since our district uses G Suite products. Here are some examples of what the badges will look like:

Badge Design Gallery.jpg

Master Level Badge (three successful challenges)

Badge Design Gallery (1)

Expert Level Badge (five successful challenges)

Student badges will be on display in our Google Classroom. That way, students can view each other’s badges, but their privacy will still be protected. Each student will have his or her own Google Slideshow with the front page you see below, and then a new slide for each new badge he or she earns throughout the year.

My Badges

Notice the XP. For each master badge the student earns, he or she will receive 5 XP (experience) points. Expert badges will result in 10 XP. For positive behavior in class, students can be awarded random XP at the teacher’s discretion. This will be part of my behavior management plan this year. Whenever students are working with the Badge Boards, they have an opportunity to trade in XP for classroom rewards such as leave class early, work with a partner, bring snacks to class, etc.

Another goal is to have a class leaderboard in place for the top ten students with the highest amount of XP. Since students can earn XP for both academic and behavioral acheivements, my hope is that the top ten isn’t all just high achievers. I want to reward students who improve and put forth effort as well.

Hopefully my journey into blended learning this year will be a success. I think that utilizing this Badge Board system will provide me the time it takes to work with students in a small group setting. I think the students will be more engaged since they have the opportunity to choose their own activities. It will take a lot of work to build the Badge Board challenges, but I am more than ready to begin.

Badge Boards

Gallery of Badge Designs

Do you use something similar to Badge Boards? I’d love suggestions from others! If there are any other middle school ELA teachers wanting to collaborate with me on the challenges, I would love help adding activities. Please comment below with your thoughts.


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