Lighting the Spark: Teachers Reflect on Student Success



Anyone who thinks the current generation of children are apathetic and uninvolved needs to hear about all of these award winners and take heart that our world will be trusted to caring and capable hands. ~ Joe Pausback

How does it feel, as a teacher, when your students surpass your expectations, and do something truly remarkable?

Mackintosh Littleton 5/6 teachers Joe Pausback and Nancy Muhich had this experience when their sixth graders in 2014 wrote and won a $96,000 grant from State Farm to install solar panels at the school. Because of that grant and the many other environmental and sustainability initiatives it sparked on campus, the students went on to receive the President’s Environmental Youth Award in August 2016, the nation’s highest environmental award for students.

Joe and Nancy share their reflections on this experience and what it has meant to them as teachers.

April – May 2014: The students and teachers decide to pursue the State Farm grant as part of their Exhibition Project, the culminating project of the IB Primary Years Program.

Joe: In my heart, I am something of an open-minded skeptic.  I never really think that anything is going to work, but am open to the option that it might.  This drives my own children crazy.  We’ll head out to go fishing and they’ll ask me if I think we are going to catch something.  Invariably I say no.  But we still go fishing and when we catch something it is a very wonderful surprise.

I did not really expect that we would get the grant.  People write grants all the time and rarely seem to get them. It was a student-led project, so Nancy and I (mostly Nancy) supported the students by keeping them on track, but not too much beyond that.  They self-edited their work on the grant and when I got a hold of it, I was all set to do some heavy-handed editing.  However, before I even got started I got several clear directives to leave it alone.  I managed to go through and put in some commas and take out a few commas but, really, that was it.   I remember thinking, wow, this is really in their language, and I didn’t feel too optimistic about our chances.  Still, we hit send and got it off to the cheers of all of the students.

Nancy: This grant opportunity was brought to us by Stacy Nimmo, a Mack parent.  She thought we had a good chance to get the grant, so we thought we would give it a try.  The idea for the solar panels came from the students, and they researched it extensively. The hardest part for me was trying to let it be completely student-led.  I kept wanting to jump in and “help.”  As it turned out, the students didn’t need it.  They were incredibly capable and resourceful.

The hardest part for the students was the fire hose of work we piled on them in a short period of time, because the deadline was within two or three weeks of when we proposed this project.  They jumped on board pretty readily.  They had no idea this could become a reality, and since we didn’t find out the results until the fall, it was crazy busy! And then we set off this balloon into the stratosphere and wondered what would happen.

September 2014: They receive the news that they have won the grant.

IMG_0681Joe: Getting the call in the fall that we had received the grant felt surreal. I think we were all completely surprised.  From there it turned into a whirlwind! Somehow this little project completely transcended the classroom and the small group of students who were working on it and it became so much larger.

Nancy: When I first found out, it was a week or two before the students, and a couple more weeks before the overall community. I was speechless. And that takes doing with me!  I was amazed that our kids could accomplish this for our community, and I thought about how this would be a resume builder for them throughout even their college careers.  Think of what is possible in their world – they got $100,000 grant for their school! When the students found out, it was a truly priceless moment. They were so stunned, so surprised, so happy. It’s a sweet moment of captured success.

April 2016, Earth Day: The news is announced that the students have been awarded the President’s Environmental Youth Award.

Mackintosh Students Awarded State Farm GrantJoe: I think the coolest moment for me was when the Colorado Public Radio interview of the students ran on NPR.  I was with my class in Washington, D..C.  We had just had a meet and greet with Senator Bennett.  We walked out of the Capitol building and out onto the Mall — blue sky, cherry blossoms, cool breeze – and ate lunch on the Mall.  A number of the adults huddled around someone’s cell phone to listen to the story.  One of the parents had tears in his eyes at hearing his daughter’s voice coming out of the phone.  She had joined our class just after winter break, because her previous school was not meeting her needs.  She started at Mackintosh right into the Exhibition project and here we were, 15 months later, with her being interviewed on national radio.  I felt like a miracle worker who was dumbstruck by his own actions.

August 2016: Joe and the students travel to Washington, D.C. to receive the PEYA Award.

Joe: The PEYA Awards were another amazing experience.  It was special to reconnect with these students.  They had graduated from Mackintosh last spring and were all just days away from starting high school.  The four students who made the trip to Washington for the awards are all going to different high schools.  There was a sense of finality that came from knowing this would probably be the last time we would all be together in this context.  I think the students had some mixed emotions.  On the one hand, they were about to enter high school and were excited about moving forward, and this was the end of a series of events that started two years before.  On the other hand, they all recognized what an amazing and unique experience they had had in their elementary and middle school years.

The coolest part of the awards was hearing about all of the other award winners.  There was a girl who had started a rewilding wolf recovery website and was doing a lot of public speaking regarding the role that wolves play in maintaining a healthy environment.  There was a boy from LA who had coordinated a campaign to educate his school and neighborhood about the importance of reducing their use of water.  A group of fifth grade students from Leadville successfully got their school district to stop serving 500 lunches per day from single use Styrofoam containers.   A high school boy had created passive, pollution-absorbing nanostructures.   A group of first grade students from the inner city of Chicago had created a community garden. I came away so inspired.  Anyone who thinks the current generation of children are apathetic and uninvolved needs to hear about all of these award winners and take heart that our world will be trusted to caring and capable hands.joe at white house

Read more on the Smart Village initiatives at Mack Littleton here.

For more details on the PEYA award, click here.

~ by Kristi Holmes Espineira, Director of Advancement, Mack Littleton