cocoa_loco_logo_resized.pngCultivating the Teachable Moment


And the class erupts in protest..."NO! We will not use styrofoam cups!" There is yelling and true emotion emanating from their 9 year old faces. The passion is evident. The students are outraged that I would even suggest using polystyrene cups to serve our hot chocolate. 31 fourth graders have just had a real life lesson in business ethics that I could never have dreamed up in a lesson plan. A lesson that is certainly not a part of the fourth grade California state standards. A lesson only made possible by cultivating the teachable moment through project based learning. Allow me to explain.

A little over a month ago my daughter and I were eating at Panda Express. We got our usual staples of orange chicken and fried rice. The plan was to take our meals home and eat them. After paying, my daughter informed me that she preferred to eat at the restaurant instead, so we sat down and enjoyed our meal. At the end of it we went to throw away our trash and I realized that we had the "to go" box instead of the regular paper plates provided by the restaurant. The problem was that the "to go" container was made out of styrofoam and there did not seem to be anywhere to recycle it. I started to wonder if I could even recycle it at all. I glanced at the bottom of the container and I noticed it said recycle 6. I was not sure what that meant so I decided to take it home to recycle it there. As I was driving home I started to wonder what recycle 6 was? I wondered how many people actually would even bother to to recycle it anyway? I had a question, and as I teach my students, that is all you need.
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The next day I went to school and posed this question to my fourth graders. Is Panda Express killing the Pandas? This led to a great discussion on figurative vs. literal language, but more importantly it led to more questions. What is styrofoam? What is recycle 6? Where do you recycle it? How many people actually recycle it? Is it even bad for the environment? Where do Pandas live? What do they eat? Who owns Panda Express? Who's responsibility is it to recycle it? How can we find out any of this? I teach my fourth graders the lesson that in the 21st century the power is in the question. Immediately we had a project. Our class set out to do the research. Some of the class researched Pandas and prepared PowerPoints. Others researched styrofoam and still others recycling and the impact of trash on the environment. It is important to mention here, to anyone thinking this is cute but a waste of valuable "test prep" time, that as students were researching they actually had to apply complex reading comprehension strategies ranging from skimming for information to using text organization and context clues to determine meaning. More importantly the students were the ones doing the work and were actually enjoying it. One search result led to the next and soon answers were coming in.

It turns out that styrofoam is actually called polystyrene and that although it is recyclable most curbside recycling does not recycle it. That led to me asking them who picks up their trash/recycling. They informed me that either Burrtec or Waste Management did, so we decided to call. A few clicks later we had the numbers and I asked who wanted to call each company. Every single student in the class raised their hands. Did you get that? It turns out today's students are highly engaged if we do our jobs. We called and came to find out that polystyrene is not recyclable locally. This really made the class mad. It seems that the plot was thickening. Then came an unfortunate thing. It was time to for Thanksgiving break. I only say unfortunate because our project lost some of its momentum. When we came back from break it was time to start our entrepreneur unit as well as a project planting beans with classes from three other countries. We also had a big district reading test and our regular school work so time became an issue. I mention this part because real teaching is not always perfect. But have no fear the story goes on. It turns out that although we had not completed the project yet it was still having an impact. Parents shared with me how fired up their children were. My students were going home and talking about their days at school. Did you catch that, unsolicited talking about school, if you have children you know that this is not a normal occurence in most homes. Many of my students were also encouraging their families to recycle.
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The next week of school arrived and we launched into our unit on entrepreneurship. In this unit my students design and run a small business. My class last year as fifth graders designed a hot chocolate business and agreed to license it to my class this year. Cocoa Loco's mission statement is to sell delicious quality hot chocolate at an affordable price. My class does everything from creating a business plan to using Microsoft Excel to keep track of daily sales and inventory. The students order the product, calculate the margins, market it, and make daily decisions on how to improve the business. After three days we had gross sales of over $300 dollars with a net around $170. Things were going great, but then we ran into our first real problem. My principal informed me that some teachers were complaining that students in the lower grades were having stomach aches during the school day. The principal wondered if maybe it was due to the fact that we were using 16 ounce cups basically filled with pure sugar and topped with whipped cream. I smiled and said I would bring up the issue to my board of directors (the class).
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Like every decision regarding the business we discussed it as a class. I asked them why they thought students were complaining about stomach aches. They eventually came to the conclusion that it was because the cups were too large and the amount of chocolate we put into our formula may make it too chocolatey for some. I then asked them what we should do. Their responses were interesting. Some students believed that we should do nothing. They felt that if the hot chocolate was giving "some" students stomach aches then those students just shouldn't buy it. I explained to them that this type of reasoning is exactly what large corporations do. They pass the responsibility on to the consumer. Others said that if the glasses were too big then the customers should just drink less. I challenged them by asking if they thought six year olds knew when to stop if something tasted so good. Others wanted full denial. They said that there was no proof that our hot chocolate caused any stomach aches. After all it is flu season. This one made me smile. My fourth graders were making decisions just as corporate America does. Then one student suggested that we simply use smaller cups. This led to a discussion on the devaluing of the, "affordable" part of our mission statement. Since students would no longer be getting the same product for the agreed upon price would we still be sticking with our mission statement? Further more it turned out that buying smaller cups that were "affordable", and that could handle hot beverages were not easy to come by. I then told them I had the perfect solution...There is in fact a type of cup that comes in all sizes, is very cheap, and can handle hot or cold drinks...Can you guess what it is?

That's correct STYROFOAM. The class erupted. There was NO WAY our company was going to use styrofoam. But I protested. We can make more money. It is the perfect solution. They wouldn't budge. And here lies the miracle of project based learning...Here lies the teachable moment. Students who two months earlier would never have thought twice about what kinds of containers they were using now were making real life ethical choices. They were making decisions about the impact their choices have on their business and on their world. They were learning as nine year olds what half of corporate America has yet to learn...and it was all because as an educator I posed a question, gave them the tools, guided them, and got the heck out of the way! Go Cocoa Loco LLC, and go Project Based Learning!