Giving Back

Long before I began teaching at Northstar, a tradition emerged called Join Hands Day where the entire building would halt classes for one Friday in May and every student would participate in a day of service-learning and giving back to our community. Each grade level tackles the day differently. Some return to Camp Manitou to help clean up for the summer season as a way to give back for allowing us to spend time there in the fall, some rake and clean up local parks, and others spread out to various organizations throughout the community to offer a helping hand for the day.

This being our first year with three grade levels to manage between the two of us, we asked the students if they wanted to join their grade level groups to participate in their planned activities for the day, or if they wanted a chance to plan their own. I was excited and nervous when the vast majority agreed they wanted a go at planning their own activities in a way that could give back to our community. I knew this could be an amazing experience, but I also knew it could be a total messy flop. And it was going to be especially difficult planning events for all 70 students when each of them was spread out through four different Humanities classes throughout the day – the time in which we would be planning.

I had never done anything like this before, and I wanted to make sure it was completely in their hands, so I did my very best to facilitate discussion, ask probing questions, and help guide them to the appropriate people and resources to further their planning without imparting my own opinions or biases. We started by brainstorming an enormous list of potential activities or events that could help our community or others in some way. There were many discussions and votes that ultimately led to the list being narrowed down to four potential ideas: volunteering in their former elementary schools, hosting a 5k pet walk to raise funds for charity and to promote healthy living, paint a mural with a positive message, and host a bowling tournament to raise funds for charity.

With four ideas and four Humanities classes, it worked out perfectly for each class to randomly select one activity on which to take the lead. It was important, at this point, for each class to understand they were responsible for further investigating their activity as an option for the entire group. It did not mean they were going to be doing that event and none of the others. It was a great way to work in a natural “jigsaw” and for each group to feel responsible for a piece of the day. Within each class, they split into teams they felt were necessary for furthering their research and planning within their activity. Many classes ended up with a communications team and a supply team among others.

Each day I tried to have a general idea for what I thought I wanted each class or group to cover or consider. For example, one day I wanted every class to consider and list potential obstacles we could face with trying to pull off their activity – weather, cost, transportation, permits, etc., and then they had a new direction to take their conversations. Often times, though, my own plans for the day were thrown out almost immediately as things came together organically. Emails were sent to principals and partnership coordinators at elementary schools as well as parent chaperones, phone calls were made to Menards about mural supply costs and to bowling alleys, interviews were conducted with our principals and police liaison regarding the legalities of hosting a fun walk/run event on our site. Every email, every phone call, every interview was written or conducted by the students.

Eventually, things morphed naturally, and a full day was beginning to take shape. If I’m being completely honest, I could not believe how much was falling into place. It turns out kids have HUGE hearts, GREAT ideas, and people LOVE to say “yes” to them! The class working on the 5k event decided it was best to remove it from our list of potential ideas because, though the event would be simple enough to pull off, they just didn’t feel it was likely to get a good turnout in the middle of the day on a Friday, and they wanted to make sure the day was worth every second of their time and energy. Many of the original ideas ended up morphing in natural ways. To explain all changes in detail would be ridiculous, so I won’t.

When Friday, May 10th rolled around, let me tell you how our day looked. Our group of 70 students split into three groups. One group chose to work on replanting the vegetable and flower gardens our first group of ARCTIC Zone 6th graders had planted two years ago. The gardens will be tended to by AZ families throughout the summer, and all vegetables harvested are free for the taking by all AZ families. Another group worked on designing and painting a “mural.” They cut it into enough sections for each student to have his/her own piece to paint which will soon be hung at the Children’s Museum in downtown Eau Claire. After multiple conversations with the museum, they were thrilled to accept our offer to paint something with a positive message for them and asked that we create something related to healthy eating/living so it can be hung in their lounge area. The finished product will be hung at some point this summer, so we will be sure to gather some members of our mural group to be present for that!


The final morning group split into four smaller sections and walked or rode to each of their former elementary schools. There they spent time volunteering in classrooms, helping to hang artwork, cleaning up playgrounds, answering questions about middle school, and chilling with kids at recess.


After enjoying a picnic lunch together outside, we loaded the bus – a bus that had been booked by students and paid for by our generous PTSA (with a mini-grant that was written by a student). The bus took us to Wagner’s Lanes where each student bowled a total of two games and recorded their final scores to bring back to their sponsors they had reached out to ahead of time. Sponsors of family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and so on pledged a choice amount of money per point their student scored that day. Prior to the actual event, they had all decided to donate the collected funds to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, so when the day was complete, the collecting began.


On the final collection day, I was made aware of something on my own personal social media account. Here’s where I need to take a side track for a moment, though I promise it’s relevant.

When I think about teachers who made a significant impact on my life, my mind immediately thinks of five different teachers. One was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Cohodes,  who was part Native American, had a heart of gold, and found beautiful ways to share her culture with us. Next was my fifth grade math teacher, Mr. Peterson, who coined the phrase, “Oof da” and also gave me the nickname, Ali, which has stuck for the last 20 years. Mr. Zoromski was my favorite high school math teacher who knew how to connect with me on my level at the time with humor while also putting me in my place when necessary. Frau Winterleigh was my sweet and spunky German teacher who opened my eyes to a language and a culture I just love. And then there was Ms. Strong.

Ms. Strong was my high school orchestra teacher and conductor for all four years. As I’ve eluded to with my new teaching position, interacting with the same students for multiple years does amazing things for building relationships. Having all four years with Ms. Strong was no exception to that concept. She was by far the craziest, funniest, kindest teacher I remember. She loved her students with her whole heart and would drop everything for any one of us. I remember her hectic schedule travelling from school to school and wondering how on earth she managed to pull it all off. She gave everything she had to her students and to making music – which, for me at the time, was a very special gift. Though I admittedly haven’t played in far too long, my violin remains close to my heart and always will, and I have Ms. Strong to thank for that.

Ms. Strong has since become Mrs. Hornby and the mother of two beautiful, spunky children of her own. Her youngest, Claire, was very recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that is inoperable. She is nine years old and is now spending her time at St. Jude’s Hospital in Tennessee where she is receiving the best possible care and is seeing and experiencing as much of the world as she possibly can.


On the final collection day for our bowl-a-thon fundraiser from our Join Hands Day event, my social media feed alerted me that Claire was now part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and they donations could be made directly to her! When I introduced Claire’s Caring Bridge site to my students, they all agreed our money should go to her. So just last week, the ARCTIC Zone donated a grand total of $3,373 to Claire’s wish! You read that total right! That total, combined with the fundraiser her own elementary school conducted for her, is likely to cover most if not all of her wish, which the foundation is considering rushing for her due to the severity of her condition.

My students received a “thank you” video directly from Claire and sent one to her in return. I cannot begin to describe how proud I am of my students – not only for collecting such a large sum of money, but for the time and planning and creative thinking they did to pull off an entire day that was dedicated to giving back to their community and was 100% theirs. This doesn’t even crack the surface of what project-based learning can offer.

If you’re curious about Claire, with permission from her mother, you can read more about her and her amazing perseverance, positive attitude, and the incredible support system she has surrounding her here:



3 thoughts on “Giving Back

  1. Kirsten Hornby says:

    Thank you Ali and the Arctic Zone for your amazing work and generosity. Wishing you all a wonderful summer and continued success in the future!

    Kirsten (Strong) Hornby – Claire’s mom

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maggie Schoenfeld says:

    With caring hearts–we are all connected–to Kirsten, Kurt, Oliver and Claire Hornby.
    Thank you, Arctic Zone!


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