Students encouraged to focus on hometown

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, April 4, 2007

By Lisa Vernon-Sparks

Journal Staff Writer

Social studies teacher Ted Mitchell focuses on a project on China in his classroom at Coventry’s Knotty Oak Middle School. Seated are, from left, Chelsea LaPort, 14 (back to camera), Olivia Petronio, 13, Bobby Baron, 14, Eric Pelletier, 13, and Kelsey Underwood, 13.

The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

COVENTRY — Ted Mitchell, a social studies teacher at Knotty Oak Middle School, works to interest his students in global matters such as pollution in Shanghai and about the historical sweep of Greek civilization.

But he discerned, years ago, that most middle school students aren’t much interested in what’s beyond their own reality.

So Mitchellcame up with a simple approach to coaxing students to get beyond themselves. First he gets them interested in their own neighborhoods, teaching them through community projects that they have a stake in what happens there. Then he draws comparisons.

“Most kids don’t care about history at this age. They think, oh, this is like watching paint dry. They don’t get it because it’s not tangible to them. You have to convince them,” Mitchell said yesterday. “Once you get them interested in how Coventry works, it’s easier to jump to someplace like China or Iraq.”

Mitchell has used this teaching tool throughout his 11 years working in Connecticut and in Rhode Island. Recently he used Coventry’s Comprehensive Plan — its broad blueprint for long-term development — as fodder for his latest teaching project.

His seventh-grade students came up their own ideas on how town officials should plan for the future. The students created 10 PowerPoint presentations that dealt with economic development, facilities, recreation, open space and safer streets, and presented those ideas to the Town Council in December 2005.

The project caught the eye of the Dunn Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the character of towns. Last month Mitchell, 38, a West Greenwich resident, received a merit award from the Newport-based group for creating an integrated social studies and civics program that focused on local planning and community appearance.

The Dunn Foundation, founded in 1996, provides resource materials for educators to inspire students to find ways to enhance their communities. It also provides research for town planners and communities to use to find ways to tone down excessive signage, strips malls and other things that make the national landscape a visual nightmare, said the foundation’s director, Richard C. Youngken.

In March, the foundation hosted a three-day education symposium in Newport, bringing in teachers from around the country to talk about their community-enhancing projects and how those projects celebrated their regions’ distinctive community character and sense of place. The community-excellence awards — the foundation’s first — were presented to six of those educators, Youngken said.

Youngken said what he liked most about Mitchell’s project is that it really got his students thinking about their town.

“Children are interested in design issues, like fashion and jewelry. Boys are into cars or mechanics. They don’t think about their community as a design package,” Youngken said.

“Ted is the kind of teacher that is a self-starter. Ted’s program connects them with the civic portion of it. We were very excited about his work. It was very engaging for the children.”

Mitchell is originally from New Jersey. He is married with two children.

He received his undergraduate degree in anthropology and sociology from Plymouth State College, in New Hampshire, and a master’s from Rhode Island College.

“Social studies is supposed to be truly about civics and really about citizenship. Obviously that entails history and understanding the history of the country. Creating responsible citizens and really active citizenship is what it’s about,” Mitchell said.

“I teach this project, even though it is outside the written curriculum. They allow me to teach it because I can connect it to other things.”

The students, about 95 in all, who came up with some of the ideas presented to the council are now eighth-graders. Among their ideas were a second police station be built in the town’s western end, near Western Coventry Elementary School another elementary school in that area to ease crowding. One group of students said a crossing guard is needed near Tiogue Elementary school because it’s near a busy intersection. A year later, Mitchell students remember what they learned and why it’s important to them.

“What I learned is that we could have our own opinions on how to change the community,” said Jade Lytle, 14.

“We are the generation that 20 years from now that will be affected by what changes are made now.”