Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Penny War Persuasive Essay Fundraiser

One of the things I struggle with as an English teacher is how to guide my students to a writing topic that they really connect with - something they actually care about that has real-life meaning to them. The Persuasive Essay - one of four major writing pieces that our sixth graders need to complete - can sometimes go awry. At least, it did for me! In the past, I allowed students free reign to choose topics, and they often ended up with seemingly thoughtful subjects like dress codes, allowance concerns, lunch menu choices, etc... And yet...their writing often lacked any feeling or real arguments.  So, for the past two years, I've done something different - the Penny War.

This is how it works:

1. Two teams of students compete to raise the most money. We did Guys vs. Gals since our class really responded to that and we have fairly even numbers. You could also have different classes or groups competing. Each team races to fill their jug with pennies and other change, but we also accepted dollars. (See variation below.)  I also upped the ante by promising the winning team an ice cream party. That alone was MAJOR motivation!

2. While we are collecting coins, each student does some research and writes a persuasive essay nominating a specific charity to receive the money. Their goal is to convince their classmates to vote for their charity. Sites like Charity Navigator are a great resource to help them find specific information, and to ensure students are selecting a reputable organization.

3. When the essays are complete, each student reads theirs out loud to the class. Then each person votes on which charity should receive the money. I always have this work as a secret ballot and have them vote for two charities. This resolves the issue of every student simply picking their own!

My students were more engaged in this writing assignment than in any other we've done this year. So many selected a charity based on a personal connection that their arguments were already powerfully motivated and they knew that their writing MATTERED this time. It wasn't just an exercise. 
  • One student who supported The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation wrote movingly of how she had to carefully watch her diet and calculated how many insulation shots she had to give herself in the past year.
  • Another girl described her adorable puppy that her family adopted from the local SPCA.
  • A boy explained how The Make-A-Wish Foundation granted his little brother a wish after he was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
The read-aloud day was moving, and although there could only be one winner, I think all the students felt good about increasing the awareness of their chosen cause and charity.
As you might guess from the picture above - the girls won!  And both teams raised a total of......... $255.52!!

And the winning charity.........
The Make-A-Wish Foundation

Traditional Penny Wars have the pennies counting as positive points, and all other change counting as their equivalent in negative points (a dime = minus ten points, a dollar = minus 100 points, etc.) Therefore Teams would strategically put non-pennies in the other group's jar to try to wipe out their points. I tried this the first year, and it was a nightmare trying to count it out, so I went the simple route this time! Also - you could have students help you roll the change, but again - I tried that, and it nearly gave me an ulcer! Using a CoinStar machine or the equivalent at your bank is much easier.

How do you engage your students in the writing process?


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