Late last spring, an email crossed my desk that started with this sentence: “We have a class of six and seven year olds who are trying to make a difference in this world.” It was from a parent at The Manhattan New School, PS 290, a public school in New York City. She was asking for product donations for a fair trade sale the children were holding.
The sale was the culmination of a process started by their teacher, Paula Rogovin, to help raise the social awareness of the children. I was so intrigued by the idea, I not only sent them a couple of boxes full of fair trade products, I interviewed Paula over the summer to learn more about how the sale came about.
“It began with the students wanting to know how cupcakes are made for restaurants,” she explained. As a way of broadening their skills and engaging them in social issues, she organizes the students into research groups at the beginning of each year. The children suggest the groups, and this year they ranged from vehicles to buildings to restaurants.
Out of the restaurant group came the questions about cupcakes. With the help of a student teacher, Megan, the children started a study to answer some of their questions. How are flour, vanilla, and chocolate made? Who invented chocolate? Who makes the ingredients and where are they grown?
Interviews with family members who were wheat farmers answered some of their questions. Then Megan did some initial research on vanilla for the group and discovered that child labor is involved in its production. The children were furious to hear this. When one child told her mother about it, they went shopping and found fair trade vanilla which she brought to school.
That purchase catapulted the group into learning more about fair trade. Word quickly spread from the kids to parents, who began sending in chocolate and other fair trade food products.
The entire class now wanted to share what they were learning about child labor and fair trade with the other 600 students in the school. They wrote and presented a play starring cupcakes who were very sad because children were made to harvest the beans that made the vanilla flavoring. “We want you to buy fair trade products” was the closing line of the play.
When the children learned about the working conditions in Ivory Coast cacao plantations, where child labor is extensive, the “kids were in a rage,” according to Paula. They wrote another play, this time about how child labor is behind so much of the chocolate sold worldwide.
But they didn’t stop there. One of the students learned from his grandfather that child labor is used in brick making in India. He also found out his great grandmother had opened a school in India for very poor children. She hoped to educate them so they wouldn’t have to work in brick yards.
During a Skype interview with the woman, one child asked how they could help. “We need pencils,” she replied. So the children proceeded to collect 3000 pencils to send her.
Over the year, interest in preventing child labor and encouraging fair trade kept growing and growing. Paula said the students had over 100 questions they wrote down about the issues. At one point, they even demanded they not go to lunch because they weren’t finished with their questions!
As their research revealed the poor working conditions, child labor, and pesticide use where vanilla and cacao beans are grown and harvested, the students wanted to do more. They wrote a newsletter and put signs up in the school about fair trade and how it helps to eradicate child labor.
They also decided to have a fair trade sale to raise awareness in their school and community and to help organizations who work to end child labor. With the help of a parent committee, the children put on a hugely successful sale, raising almost $5000. They donated the proceeds to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a non-profit organization working to end child labor and sweatshop conditions.
Though the students probably weren’t aware of it, their learning journey about fair trade also enhanced their academic journey. They used reading and writing skills in their research and creating their stage productions. Even math skills came into play when they learned how to make change for the sale.
Paula believes the most valuable result of the year-long look at fair trade is that it unfolded from the curiosity of the children themselves. “The topic really ran deep with the students,” she explained. “It has to come from the kids, and when it does, it becomes a life-long interest.”