S.E. Gross Principal Ryan Evans helps students load up boxes of food in the parking lot of the school on Feb. 4. Students collected the items to donate to a food pantry in Brookfield. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

This year students at S.E. Gross Middle School are learning about teamwork, collaboration and service thanks to a new elective class called Inquiry and Innovation. 

Divided into two five-week segments, the first requires students pick a topic that they are passionate about, research it and deliver presentation, which could include anything from creating art work, a performance or giving a lecture. 

In the other five week segment, students choose a service project. Recently S.E. Gross School students in the class collected food that was delivered to a Brookfield food pantry last week. 

Other students collected winter clothing that they donated to Goodwill in Westchester. A group of girls donated feminine hygiene products to Sarah’s Inn, a Forest Park-based agency that aids victims of domestic violence.

A group of sixth-graders made and sold Rainbow Loom bracelets, donating the money they made to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. 

Among the service projects chosen by students in S.E. Gross School’s Inquiry and Innovation class were a Yuda Band fundraiser to further the college education of a Zimbabwean student. | Provided

Some seventh-graders wrote cards to soldiers stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, while a group of eighth-graders sold Yuda Bands and other bracelets, putting half of the money they raised toward the education of a 20-year-old student from Zimbabwe who hopes to study medicine in the United States and become a surgeon. The other half of the proceeds went to the artisans in Guatemala who make the bracelets.  

Eighth-grader Zoe Jeffcott, who has a cousin who teaches in Guatemala, came up with the idea of helping poor students and artisans there.

“I thought the bracelets were really something that would sell well to the students here at school,” Jeffcott said. 

Jeffcott was right. From a table in the cafeteria they sold all of 200 Yuda bracelets that they had ordered. 

The students even got a chance to have a Zoom conversation with the Zimbabwean student, Courage Kuku, they were helping out.

“I thought it was really cool that as a class we were able to collaborate on our ideas and our interests to come up with something that we all cared about,” Jeffcott said.

Seventh-grader Rachel Amundson helped organize a letter-writing campaign to soldiers at Fort Hood, where her brother is stationed. They penned more than 500 letters and cards.

Among the service projects chosen by students in S.E. Gross School’s Inquiry and Innovation class were writing letters and cards to soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. | Provided

“It was really fun,” Amundson said.

Sixth-grader Cameron Fox chose the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes of children suffering from life-threatening diseases, as the beneficiary of her project. Students donated all of the money they made selling Rainbow Loom bracelets to the organization.

“I learned that you could help people,” Fox said. “It was really a fun feeling.” 

The class was the pet project of Cathy Cannon, the director of teaching and learning for Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95.

The pandemic limited the number of students that could be in a music class at any one time and opened up time during the school year for another elective class. Cannon has had a passion for service-oriented learning for a long time.

“Volunteering and service learning projects are something that I did as a middle schooler and high schooler,” Cannon said.

Last year Cannon talked with students about what kind of class they wanted to see and students said that they wanted something different and hands on, not just another paper to write.

“They just talked about wanting to collaborate, wanting to work together, something that’s more engaging,” Cannon said.

Veteran music teacher Barb Hendrickson teaches the class. She mainly acts as a support person, letting the kids do as much as they can on their own.

“The goal was that the students would drive the majority of the work and organization of those projects and causes that they chose,” Cannon said. “The students would have the ideas. We could facilitate and provide suggestions, ideas, and directions and let them work on executing it.” 

Cannon hopes the class can continue on in some form next year, even if things return to normal. She has found it gratifying to watch students identify a need and seek ways to help out and improve things.

“I’m just so proud of our students,” Cannon said. “They showed so much passion and organization and dedication to make this happen.”