Blugold mentors teach local fifth-graders about making change in their community

| Judy Berthiaume

Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

When it comes to understanding citizenship schools, the fifth-graders at Manz Elementary School in Eau Claire might have you beat.

Thanks to a team of Blugolds, these young students now understand how decades ago citizenship schools helped African-Americans in their fight against segregation, and how the spirit of these schools still is shaping social justice movements today.

UW-Eau Claire students in a “Women of the Civil Rights Movement” class used what they learned about citizenship schools — schools that helped African-Americans understand their rights as United States citizens, which prepared them to be engaged citizens in their community during the civil rights movement — to create their own “citizenship school” for the local fifth-graders.

“Our students study the history of the civil rights movement and learn from change agents during that time,” says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, executive director for diversity and inclusion, who teaches the class. “They then research issues facing them as students and leaders today.

“The UW-Eau Claire students combine their historical understanding of the civil rights movement with their learning about mechanisms of social change to develop lesson plans to teach and engage fifth-graders in making a positive impact in our community.”

Thesing-Ritter says the project is the perfect example of the integrated learning that is a cornerstone of learning at UW-Eau Claire and through Blugold Beginnings, a program that encourages underrepresented or first-generation students to consider post-secondary education.

During the civil rights era, citizenship schools began as a way to educate African-Americans about the rights they had as U.S. citizens so they could assert their rights in the fight against segregation.

At the time, many states had literacy tests that required people to read, write and answer citizenship questions, so ensuring that large numbers of African-Americans had the skills and knowledge they needed to pass was important in the fight for civil rights.

Today, the spirit of the citizenship schools continues through programs that advance social change.

As part of the “Women of the Civil Rights Movement” class, the Blugolds work in teams to research a social issue, develop an age-appropriate lesson plan to teach about the issue and prepare a solution that the youth can help implement, Thesing-Ritter says.

As part of their social change project, each Blugold in the class completes 15 hours of service, she says, noting that students in the fall class hosted a Leadership School for the Manz fifth-graders, volunteered in their classrooms and hosted the citizenship school event.

The college students also shared with the young students about the civil rights movement and all of the lessons they had learned from the courageous women they have studied in class, she says.

During the UW-Eau Claire-Manz citizenship school event, the Blugolds focused on a variety of social issues important to them, engaging the fifth-graders in interactive experiences at 10 learning stations.

Examples include:

  • Homelessness: Fifth-graders learned about the number of students in the Eau Claire Area School District and people in the Eau Claire community who are homeless. They made tie blankets to donate to the Beacon and Sojourner houses in Eau Claire. Manz students collected toiletries throughout the fall semester, which they made into personal care boxes to donate to the Sojourner House.
  • Animal cruelty: The students learned about animal abuse, as well as animal shelters. They made chew toys for the Eau Claire County Humane Association.
  • Cancer: Students learned about the Love Your Melon organization, and how it is fighting childhood cancer and supporting children with cancer. The fifth-graders made craft bags for children undergoing chemotherapy in the Chippewa Valley.
  • Too much screen time: The fifth-graders learned about how much tech time is too much, and how to get physical exercise without having to go outside. They practiced some of the activities.
  • Clothing insecurity: The youth learned about poverty, including how people may not have money to buy clothes and that socks are a high-need item. UW-Eau Claire students and Manz students together conducted a socks drive. During the citizenship school event, the socks we bundled and later donated to the Beacon and Sojourner houses in Eau Claire.

“The hard work of our students paid off with incredible learning and service,” Thesing-Ritter says of the daylong event, noting that Blugold Beginnings students hosted fundraisers, from bake sales to hot chocolate nights, to raise monies to purchase the supplies needed for the projects completed by the fifth-graders.

The UW-Eau Claire students invested more than 400 hours in volunteering in Manz classrooms, hosting the Leadership School, fundraising for supplies for the citizenship school, planning and implementing the citizenship school, and delivering the products created at the event to community agencies.

“This is an excellent example of the way UW-Eau Claire students give service to their community,” Thesing-Ritter says.

Thesing-Ritter says the citizenship school was a hit with both the fifth-graders and the Blugolds.

“The fifth-graders loved the opportunity to do service to make their community better,” Thesing-Ritter says. “They especially enjoyed the opportunity to spend the day learning with the mentors.

“There was so much joy and positive energy in the building because the fifth-graders and the college students alike were making the world a better place.”

Photo caption: Blugolds Jeremiah Crisostomo, Leng Thao, Cailen Andrews and Kehinde Olu Famule (from left) lead Manz Elementary School fifth-graders in activities during a recent citizenship school event.