By Heather Tomchek
In 2007, I took a class about Project Citizen in Denver, Colorado. There, I was introduced to what the project was and how to teach it. It was here that I conducted my first project—“BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag.” The project was on the effects of plastic bags in our environment. Through this experience, I was probably one of the first people in Appleton, Wisconsin, to use reusable bags for groceries. Grocery store clerks thought I was crazy. This was just the beginning of my ventures with Project Citizen.
One of the stipulations of the Project Citizen training was that I needed to enter the state showcase. That first year, even though I didn’t quite know what I was doing, the class and I figured it out together. And honestly, I still don’t know what I’m doing, as students pick new topics every year. But we always figure it out together. I have worked on Project Citizen with over seven hundred students who have conducted approximately thirty-five different projects. I wish I’d have written them all down but, unfortunately, I didn’t quite understand what an impact this project would make on the New Holstein community.
In one of the first years, a school board member suggested that the students pick the topic of individual computers. In 2008, that idea seemed extreme. The technology director was against it and tried to get them to change their topic to increase the firewall protection at the school. However, years later a new technology director used the research the students had done to help bring a one-to-one computer program to New Holstein.
Another early project earned me the temporary nickname of “Erin Brockovich,” as my students dug into the cause of a local polluted creek.
Students have always been passionate about their health. Many projects have been done on their school lunches, some others on water quality, and quite a number on smoking. About five years before the statewide indoor smoking ban, some students suggested that smoking indoors should be illegal. Another group suggested that smoking in cars when kids are present should be illegal (which is a current bill in our legislature). And just this last year, a group suggested smoke-free parks in New Holstein. This “Smoke Free to Save Me,” group was the first class to bring their idea to fruition within an academic school year. They not only convinced the local parks commission that smoking in local parks where children play should be prohibited, they also worked with a local organization, “Community Action for Healthy Living,” who ended up donating the signs that are currently displayed at the parks.
Through these projects students have proven to be visionaries. They think deeply about their future and want to help society. One student told me that it’s not just a project you do for the community, it’s a project that turns kids into citizens. My hope is that once they know how powerful they are, they continue to make an impact on their community.
The hardest project was on stem cell research. One student’s father had some serious medical issues and all the students wanted to help. After months of very technical research, the class concluded that women giving birth should be asked if they’d like to donate the stem cells in the umbilical cords to science so that these valuable assets were not just thrown away. Senator Leibham told the class at the time that a similar bill was being discussed at the state level, but when my daughter was born in 2011, the doctors didn’t know anything about it. Unfortunately, my daughter’s stem cells were wasted.
A group called, “You’ve Got to Fight, Against the Might, of the Bulllllllyyyyyy,” wanted to bring a Taekwondo class to New Holstein to help create a culture of respect. Their research convinced me to sign myself and my two sons up for Taekwondo. As a result, we are all now red belts, but the potential liability has prevented the school district from instituting this idea.
One class wanted to build a handicapped-accessible playground at the elementary school. They managed to get the attention of a local organization for possible funding, but the project ultimately did not get off the ground.
Our first really big success came from a group called, “Save My Kids’-neys.” They wanted a school nurse. The students started an e-mail form letter that was mass mailed to local school board members. This venture ended up with me in the principal’s office and taught me to give the administration a heads-up on the antics of my students. At the time, there was a nurse on the School Board, Mrs. Brenda Lefeber. The class asked her to come and talk. She expected to give them a lesson on school fiscal policy, but left convinced that a nurse was a good idea. With her help and the help of a parent, Mrs. Kim Olson, the idea became a reality.
In 2012, New Holstein came in as a runner up at the state showcase with a project that wanted gym class five days a week. One of their alternative policies was to get more activity for students during the school day. Another class, a few years later, called “Fit to Function,” would also tackle this topic. Together they convinced the administrators to get some standing desks. Today, I have six standing desks in my room, that give kids optional seating. In fact, one of the administrators also bought a standing desk for himself!
In 2013–14, New Holstein finally won the coveted Project Citizen State Showcase with a project entitled, “Trackortunity.” These students thought that our cement track with its tarred up cracks should be replaced with a rubberized track that was better for the bone and muscle structure of runners. After also doing very well at the national Project Citizen showcase, and being the talk of the town, they have, just this summer, realized their dream.
Also in 2013–14, a project called, “Ditch the Penny to Educate Many,” wanted to address an issue that was plaguing the creators of Project Citizen. The students discovered that the federal government was wasting money producing pennies, yet at the same time programs like Project Citizen were being cut. Their research told them that a penny typically costs about one and a half cents to produce and as a result, instead of discontinuing production, as Canada did in 2012, the government made it illegal to melt them down to sell them for scrap metal. Their research caught the attention of someone, and in September of 2014, one student from this group and I were asked to attend the inauguration of the Civics Renewal Network in Washington, D.C. The student was to talk with our federal congressmen, so she and I talked with Representative Reid Ribble and Senator Ron Johnson about wasteful government spending on pennies and the lack of funding for civic education. We became lobbyists, as Hailey gave her spiel to Senator Johnson in the lobby!
In 2014–15, the group “Water is Life” managed to convince the school board to install water filters on the middle school “bubblers” (the rest of the world calls them drinking fountains, but here in Wisconsin the term “Bubbler” is a tribute to our local Kohler Company). And the group, “The Moo-Holstein Way,” has put the idea of getting more local produce into our school breakfast and lunch programs.
This last year, 2015–16, “Be Prepared, Not Scared,” Project Citizen has created a safety club that is working with the local liaison officer, Mr. Kurtis Stephany. They are conducting bucket drives to get a safety bucket of supplies for every classroom in the district. Next year will be the first year of the New Holstein Safety Club, which will work with local emergency responders to make sure all students are safe as possible at school.
The project is not the easiest to teach. Every year there are struggles. Every year is different. The topics are always chosen by students and they pull me in directions I’ve never expected. My hope is that they feel the “we” in “We the people,” and continue to work for “a more perfect union.”