A pencil, a piece of paper and an idea can leave a lasting impact. Those tools are the catalyst for a unique lesson for Ned Dorff’s students at Aldo Leopold Community School in Green Bay.
Each year around Aldo Leopold’s birthday (January 11), Dorff, a first and second-grade teacher, asks his students to take part in a letter writing campaign. The letters provide students an opportunity to use their voice and write to elected officials at the local, statewide, and national levels. Students are tasked with voicing any concerns they may have about the environment, and what they think the elected official can do to help.
“It’s teaching them to be an advocate for something they care about, engaging them not just with the environment, but with the process of being an active citizen,” Dorff said. “They realize (through the lesson) that although they don’t have the right to vote yet, they do have a voice, and they can share their thoughts and opinions about what is going on in the world.”
To start, Dorff assembles a list of elected officials, from which students choose whom they hope to write. President Joe Biden, Wisconsin Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly, county officials and local alderpeople, to name a few, have been recipients of letters from students. After taking some time to think about what they want to advocate for, students put pencil to paper.
“This project allows kids to tap into their sense of compassion, as well as justice; I think it’s important we maintain those,” Dorff said. “We all care about the Earth, and we know we need to treat it well, and we need to hold each other accountable. I think this is a way that we can do it in a developmentally appropriate way.”
In January, Dr. Underly received a letter from one of the students at Aldo Leopold. The letter stated:
“Dear Jill Underly,
I am writing in honor of Aldo Leopold’s birthday. Did you know…butterflies and bees have lost a lot of their homes? Please plant more native plants at school.”
Aside from learning the basics of writing a letter and advocating for something important, one of students’ favorite moments is when they receive a reply from letter recipients. Some officials, like Lt. Gov. Barnes and local officials have even visited the school to thank students for their meaningful letters and to spend time with them.
“They are always so excited when we get a new letter in the mail,” Dorff said. “I think the kids are excited to know they can be in touch with the people who make some big decisions.”
Dorff said the lesson plan ties in with a book the school has been using recently to celebrate the many ways kids can use their voices to make a difference. The book, SPEAK UP by Miranda Paul, helps educate kids on how they can use the First Amendment. In 2020, Dorff and his wife, Lindsay, worked together on putting together lesson plans based on the book. View the lesson plans by clicking here.
With more than two decades of experience as a teacher, Dorff said the lesson plan and the school environment certainly changed throughout the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Above all, though, his passion for teaching and forming meaningful relationships with those around him helps him appreciate every moment.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some great families and wonderful kids and colleagues,” Dorff said. “We went through some hard years together…the pandemic impacted us all in different ways. But we still created and maintained a supportive environment, whether it was virtually or in person.
“Finally getting back into the building and seeing how (students) play together. The energy and the excitement that the kids bring to school, the curiosity and the fact I work at a school that is willing to allow teachers in classrooms to do some really meaningful projects and connect with the community. That makes a big difference, and that’s a reason why I love where I work.”