Eagle River school program teaches civil 'society'

Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

EAGLE RIVER - It's a busy day at Eagle River Elementary School, and principal Nicole Sommerville is going nonstop. Parents are coming in to listen to a band concert, so the front office is bustling with activity. It is snowing buckets outside, so the parking lot is buried in so much white stuff that the plow truck can't keep up.

Melissa Devaughn / Alaska Star
Melissa Devaughn / Alaska Star

And sitting on a table in Sommerville's office is a giant stack of merchandise that could be confused for holiday gifts left by the children, but are in fact products created by those same children as part of the schoolwide MicroSociety.

The MicroSociety is a cooperatively run program that engages the entire student body to essentially create their own universe within the school walls. Here, the kids learn how to manage money, create goods, obtain loans, provide services, pay taxes, maintain a form of government, and earn money (in the form of cute pink-and-black "Eagle Bucks"). They even provide social and educational opportunities for those living in their "society."

It sounds complex, and it is, in a way, because the teachers, students, parents and administrators have to make a conscious effort to keep their society going. But in reality, Sommerville said, becoming a community as part of the nationally recognized MicroSociety program comes easily to the children at the school. And now, in its third year at Eagle River, she can't think of running the place without it.

"There are so much academics involved, and the kids connect to the real world," Sommerville said. "It unifies our school because every student is involved and they work within different grades and with different teachers. ... It also gives them a lot of civics, so they learn about voting and they understand money, which is huge.

"Our kids become real leaders because they've had to grow with this program."

They also become pretty darned creative. The products in Sommerville's office - the result of one of several "marketplaces" hosted at the school throughout the year - are impressive. These aren't your average third-grade doodles.

There is hand-crafted stationery, with decorative wildlife motifs; playful claymation creatures with giant, googly eyes; holiday decorations painted to resemble the earth in soft shades of blue and green; and nature-based fossil recreations capturing the shapes of dragonflies and accompanied by certificates of authenticity.

Not only did each product have a monetary value in the "market," but it also ties into studies each class is working on in science, social studies, math and other subjects.

That's why parent Kimberly Vierwinden is so taken with MicroSociety. Not only does her son, Sean, 6, get to learn the value of money, but he also can tie the products he creates into what he's learning in first-grade science.

"They're selling what they're learning," she said.

Sean - dressed in monkey-covered green fleece because this busy day also included a dress-up theme in which students wore robes, slippers and their favorite pajamas to school - demonstrated his grasp of science while balancing a green, hand-colored frog on his fingertips. He could raise and lower his arms and the frog mysteriously stayed put, wobbling on Sean's small finger, but not slipping or falling away.

"It's balancing the frogs," Sean said. "We learned about balance. We made balance birds, balance clowns, balance parrots and balance frogs. I liked the balance birds best."

In fact, Sean's mother said, her son is learning about the concepts of weights and balances in his classroom, and when it was time for his class to also create a product for the MicroSociety's marketplace, they came up with the "balance" creatures, using pennies on the tips of the creatures' limbs to help them wobble yet still stay upright.

"Other classes learned how to make paper while studying recycling, and the globe ornaments were focusing on their studies about the world," Kimberly Vierwinden said. "It's all so educational, and they are learning the value of money too, and what prices mean."

MicroSociety first started in Philadelphia, Sommerville said, and as far as she knows, Eagle River Elementary is the only school in the Anchorage School District to be 100-percent immersed in the program. Each year, it grows and changes - getting better as it goes.

The idea behind the Micro-Society concept is to create an entire community governed and managed by kids. Students go to work at "jobs," which, according to the program details, includes such positions as banking, museum curating, IRS auditing, newspaper, small business and nonprofits. Not only do students learn about government and the legal system, but they also are taught about philanthropy, marketing, and community-enhancement programs such as education and beautification projects.

All the while, the kids are learning, too. They are writing about their work, reading stories about their society and self-correcting their behavior on an "Eagle Bucks" reward system that resembles the laws and rules of most societies.

Every Tuesday afternoon, during the last hour of the school day, the students can be found fine-tuning their MicroSociety. Sommerville said students form groups, attend meetings, work on products or nonprofit programs and generally run their community like a well-oiled machine.

On the wall in the hallway is a map of their "society" - essentially a hand-drawn reproduction of their school hallways and classrooms. It's called "Eagleville," and there labeled on the map is the Water Works, marketplace, zoo, wholesale store, bank and even a mall. Every Tuesday, this place embraces the children's imaginations and lets them create a pretend world that is teaching them very real concepts of how to live in today's economy.

It's an ideal situation, and Sommerville, as the leader of the community, is proud of her subjects.

"It's evolved into this thing that includes the whole school, and they're learning all the time," she said. "Every year, it's different and that's a good thing, especially because they're having fun."

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