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Shake on it!

Students learn soft skills, how to think on their feet

Grandville — In front of a small audience, fourth-grader Vivian Blackburn tried mango- and cotton candy-flavored crickets while being scored by an adult judge on her ability to stay composed. 

“I took little small ones (bites), because, what if they tasted bad?” Vivian said of her strategy.

Vivian was one of 36 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at West Elementary who participated in the Amazing Shake, a high-energy event in which students competed in 20 activities to test their soft skills. Each activity was judged and facilitated by adult volunteers, many of them business leaders from the Grandville area. 

The activities ranged from presenting a “Shark Tank”-like business pitch to role-playing as the president’s press secretary. Some required students to think on their feet while others tested their ability to prepare ahead of time. In each, participants were expected to maintain good eye contact, be polite and, of course, give firm handshakes. 

West students prepared for the Amazing Shake all year with weekly lessons to practice professional and interpersonal soft skills. A month before the event, the school held a preliminary round to narrow the competitor pool down to 36 students. 

Sixth-grader Grace McDaniel, the event’s victor, said she enjoyed being able to meet so many new people. “I was a little nervous at first, but I was able to let go and have fun,” she said.

Fourth-grader Harlan Russ felt prepared by his teachers, and he went into the event eager to win. “I’ve been waiting for this all weekend,” he said. 

“I learned how to be myself. You don’t have to be embarrassed to go up to a stranger.”

— fourth-grader Vivian Blackburn

Students weren’t the only ones who had been eagerly anticipating the competition. In 2019, fourth grade teacher Stacey Byl and principal Brian Mulder visited Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, the school that started the Amazing Shake. Once they learned more about the event, they knew they wanted to put it on at West Elementary.

When they returned to Michigan, they wrote and received a $2,000 grant from the Grandville Education Foundation and were prepared to host the Amazing Shake in the spring of 2020 — until the pandemic lockdown began. 

“It’s been three years of being ready to do this,” said Byl. 

Amazing Shake organizer and fourth grade teacher Stacey Byl observes the competition

A Community Effort

From the GEF to the Parent Teacher Club that helped cover extra expenses to the Grandville high schoolers who helped set up the stations in the gymnasium, many different parties came together to make the Amazing Shake possible. 

“This event went better than expected and it was because of the amazing community partners that showed up for us today,” said Mulder. “Without them, we can’t host an event like this.” 

Byl said every business they contacted expressed interest in participating. 

“As soon as [Byl] told me she was running the event here at West Elementary, I immediately asked if I could help out,” said Brandon Jezdimir, a principal at Notre Dame Preparatory and Marist Academy in Pontiac, which has put on the Amazing Shake twice before. 

Jezdimir judged an activity in which students unknowingly delivered a cold pizza with a chunk missing. Their task was to react on the spot to Jezdimir’s dissatisfaction. “Unfortunately, I had to be the bad customer,” he said. 

Jim VanWieren, who volunteers at West year-round and has a grandson at the school, said he’s noticed the students’ behavior change since they started Amazing Shake lessons. “I’ve watched them become more confident,” he said. 

Mulder and Byl hope to expand the Amazing Shake next year to include every fifth- and sixth-grader in the district. They also hope to be part of a statewide Amazing Shake that will involve five Michigan schools. 

Students already approve of the plans to grow. “The Amazing Shake is so much fun, and I think a lot of other schools should do it,” Grace said. 

As for the cricket-tasting Vivian: “I learned how to be myself. You don’t have to be embarrassed to go up to a stranger,” she said.

Fifth-grader Ryan Vogel reacts politely to judge Jean Carrol-Hamilton’s gift of a strange-looking photo
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