Teacher gives students life experience over exam stress

Dr. Wendy Edwards, left, who works with autistic youth, stands proudly with her son, Patrick Hindmarsh, a Grade 12 student at Chatham Christian School whose presentation won a $5,000 grant for the CKCS Autism program. United Way executive director Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, centre, presents the cheque.

Do you remember the questions asked of you on your Grade 12 English exam? If you do, do you remember feeling like you made a difference?

Chatham Christian School teacher Amy Bergsma asked that question and came up with an exam alternative for the Grade 12 English students, giving them a chance to do a hands-on project that increased their knowledge of non-profit agencies and the people who need them, instead of writing a final exam.

Twelve Grade 12 students from Chatham Christian High School, made a presentation recently to a panel of judges and to the general public about some of the work being done in the community by non-profit organizations funded by the local United Way.

Bergsma partnered with United Way of Chatham-Kent and the Chatham-Kent Nonprofit Network to create a unique opportunity for her students to work on a hands-on experiential learning project in place of their final exam – a project that would raise awareness of charitable programs in Chatham-Kent, encourage volunteerism in youth, allow students to meet Ontario curriculum requirements in a meaningful and purposeful way, all while encouraging a pride in, and love for, Chatham-Kent.

“It embodies the vision of our school, that we are part of the greater community and not living in isolation,” Bergsma said at the event. “This project allowed the students to learn and then go out and educate others about the non-profit agencies in our community.”

The students each selected a charity to research and their assignment was to publicly present and advocate for funding for each of these charities to a panel of community volunteers.

At the end of the presentations, each of the students was assigned a grade and the charity represented by the presenter with the most votes was slated to receive a $5,000 donation – approved by the United Way Board of Directors from their Community Impact Grants.

The winning charity was the Autism Transitional Classroom with Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, based on the presentation that was made by student Patrick Hindmarsh.

Hindmarsh, son of Dr. Wendy Edwards who works with youth with autism, was thrilled he won, and admits he was a bit surprised.

“It was a really eye-opening experience,” Hindmarsh said after finding out his presentation won. “We could have done an exam, but with an exam you would just write out information on coloured note cards and forget, but with this, you can make a difference in the whole community, not just with yourself.

“I was not expecting to win; all the presentations were really good.”

Diagnosed with autism at age three, Hindmarsh and said he recovered from that to be in classes with his peers. His presentation was well-received by the panel, who were impressed with his information and enthusiasm.

“I designed this project to not only matter for Grade 12 marks, but to alter the course of their lives,” said Bergsma. “Imagine the impact of these students having a deeper sense of community, greater capacity for empathy, and the empowerment to know how to step outside of their comfort zones and make change happen.

“I was impressed with where the students went with this and I couldn’t be more proud. This stretched them way out of their comfort zone,” Bergsma added. “They were nervous but they got a high and sense of accomplishment you don’t get from writing an exam.”

The students had about a month to complete the project before it was presented.

The Autism Transitional Classroom is planning on using these funds to purchase enhanced learning materials for its classroom.

Edwards said she understood the funds would be used to purchase equipment to enhance non-verbal communication and funds to train education assistants who help kids with autism transition into classrooms.

UWO executive director Karen Kirkwood-Whyte told the students in the class how proud she was of the work they did on the projects and the light they shone of some of the 30-plus agencies supported by the United Way.

“This is something we have never done before,” she noted.

Kirkwood-Whyte met Bergsma when she expressed interest in the Bridges Out of Poverty seminar.

“We made sure they could come to the workshop and saw the opportunity to educate young people about non-profit services in Chatham-Kent,” she added. “To hear young people engaged in civic affairs and that kind of experiential teaching is impressive. They won’t remember a final exam but they will remember this.”




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