Sparta — It’s 8 a.m., and Sparta Middle School’s main atrium is bustling as sixth- and seventh-graders representing more than 50 local businesses hurry to set up their booths and rehearse their presentations one last time before guests and classmates arrive.
Now in its third year, the business showcase is spearheaded by language arts teachers Alec Dood and Jenna Conlin. Through the project, which culminates in the showcase, their students strengthen their research and rhetoric skills while learning to work together and developing connections with business people in their community.
Dood, a 2018 Hope College graduate, was inspired by a similar project he was involved with while completing his student teaching in Hudsonville. He brought the idea with him to Sparta, where he has taught since 2019.
Authentic, Real-world Experience
In preparation for the showcase, students researched their assigned businesses, including big brands such as Amway and Meijer as well as smaller local businesses.
They focused on history, current size and purpose, the impact of the pandemic and the central question of the project: “Why is West Michigan a great place to do business?” To help with their research, students interviewed a representative of the business they featured.
“We get to meet with real people and do something we would do in the real world,” said seventh-grader Charlotte Burns.
That authenticity, said Conlin, helps to get students excited for the project: “They were shocked when they found out ‘Oh, we actually meet with these businesses; there’s people who work there who are coming to meet with us?’ … They have a connection now, a real life connection.”
“We got to ask people actually in the business how it worked,” said seventh-grader Jillian Seevers.
‘It’s the most authentic fact-checking experience you can have, because you sit down with your business, here’s the things that you’ve made, and we’re looking for feedback … the kids take it so seriously, because they do want to represent their business as best as possible.’– teacher and showcase co-creator Alec Dood
Sariah Rodriguez, whose group was paired with Ed Dunneback & Girls Farm, raved about the representative she worked with: “She was very kind. Very helpful, and easy to contact,” Sariah said. “I’m glad we got to talk to her.”
Each student group prepared an infographic and history story, then had the opportunity to have a second meeting where they shared the materials they created with the representative.
“It’s the most authentic fact-checking experience you can have,” Dood said. “Because you sit down with your business, here’s the things that you’ve made, and we’re looking for feedback … the kids take it so seriously, because they do want to represent their business as best as possible.”
Equipped with that feedback, students went to work creating visual displays and planning their verbal presentations.
‘21st Century Skills’
While learning about their businesses and honing their writing skills, Dood and Conlin’s students were also practicing digital literacy, public speaking and confidence.
“Building those 21st century skills is probably the most important thing,” Dood said. “Being able to create things digitally is such an important skill, digital literacy, and so that’s really the whole point of creating the infographic.”
From interviewing their business representative to presenting their final project, students were challenged to use their voices. “Being able to speak is such an important skill, no matter your job one day,” Dood said.
Every student involved delivered a part of their group’s verbal presentation to classmates and guests at the showcase.
“They haven’t had normal school years in a while; they haven’t done those projects and those presentations and speaking in front of people and things like that,” Conlin said. “After this, hopefully they feel confident … in their speaking skills and their work.”
Seventh-graders who were involved with the showcase last year got to build on the skills they developed in their previous projects. “I’ve seen such an improvement in the sixth-graders from last year to this year, doing it again,” Dood said. “They’ve really honed in on the skills that I was asking them to develop.”
Power of Having to Be Virtual
Due to pandemic safety guidelines, the showcase wasn’t able to invite parents until this year. But what Dood calls “the power of the virtual meeting,” a byproduct of the pandemic, has enriched the experience, he said, allowing students to connect with business people who might not have time in their schedules to be physically present at the school.
“These kids lost a third of their school year two years ago… last year was weird; they couldn’t really collaborate, so it’s now more important than ever to have that project in place to be able to learn collaboration skills,” he said.
Working in small groups, students practiced communicating with one another and how to compromise.
“It’s so much fun to collaborate with other people,” seventh-grader Fiona Alvarado said.
The pandemic also incentivized businesses’ participation. “Ultimately, because of COVID, a lot of people probably thought this was worthwhile, because it’s exposure – free advertising, right here,” Dood said.
For many of the students, collaborating with their businesses went beyond the representative they worked with. Many visited the business they were assigned outside of school hours, and businesses gifted students T-shirts, hard hats, products and more.
“The kids do a great job, and the businesses treat them well,” Superintendent Pete Bush said.