How a Shark Tank Competition Lets Students Create Their Dream Classrooms

Student Voice

How a Shark Tank Competition Lets Students Create Their Dream Classrooms

By Hannah Fenlon and Henry Asa     Apr 19, 2018

How a Shark Tank Competition Lets Students Create Their Dream Classrooms

If you could buy anything to make your classroom a better place, what would it be? That's a tempting enough prompt for teachers but it was actually the question that 3rd grade students at Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua, NY, recently got to answer.

During a classroom unit on persuasiveness, the students had to come up with an idea that would help improve their classroom. The proposals—from Yogibos bean bag chairs to a fully-equipped activity room—were presented in front of their classes, school administration and members of the Chappaqua School Foundation, an organization that fulfills grant requests. The innovative solutions were then voted on by students to become fully funded.

Prior to their presentations, the third graders watched video footage of a similar event—called a “Grant Shark Tank”—at Horace Greeley High School, which is modeled after the high-flying business pitches on the popular TV series. The 3rd graders were greatly inspired by the high school event and, as a result, their writing “rose to a different level, since they were so invested in the process,” according to their teachers.

The Shark Tank was run by Greeley’s Chappaqua School Foundation Student Advisory Council (or CSF SAC for short), a group composed of more than 50 high school students, which functions as a management consultant group for the foundation. Throughout the school year, the SAC conducts grant analysis for the district-wide innovative grants and projects the foundation funds. The SAC’s main goal is to provide student feedback about these grants so that the foundation can fund innovative and meaningful initiatives that fall outside the scope of the school budget.

Gathering Input

Typically, our foundation funds grants with the assumption that it will benefit teaching and learning. Grantees must explain how their request improves teaching and learning as part of the grant application, citing research where available. As part of their analysis, students conduct teacher interviews, directly observe classrooms, organize surveys and run focus groups. An important component of grant evaluation is the opinion of students directly impacted by the grant.

By gathering input on grant proposals and the grants that have already been implemented, the foundation is able to hear the voices of their most important audience—students. Small investments, like having wireless color printers in the library, may not receive a lot of attention, but pose a significant roadblock for student productivity. Only those directly impacted by the lack of these printers would actually notice it. That’s why the student voice of the student advisory council can help the foundation allocate its funds wisely.

With an event like the Shark Tank, students had the chance to envision a more collaborative, innovative and even energizing environment. Proposals varied from small “Instagrants,” like whiteboard stickers to stick on classroom desks, to pie-in-the-sky wishlists. During the Shark Tank, no idea was too big and no limitations were placed on the cost, scope and feasibility of a proposal. This let students creatively and honestly answer the question of “What kind of grants would make our school a better place?” A plethora of proposals were introduced, some extending beyond what any administrative committee would ever consider—like “sleeping pods” for naps. One group proposed putting funds toward the restoration of Greeley’s currently unused observatory—a proposal that ultimately won the competition.

True, the administration had already been considering a renovation of the observatory, but due to the scope of such a project it was not considered a top priority. As soon as student interest was shown through the Shark Tank, however, it became clear that pursuing the idea had existing support right down to the student body.

The students that proposed the observatory renovation have since been working closely with the administration to further research and develop the project before a formal grant is proposed to the foundation. The students who pitched the idea raised the possibility of developing a new astronomy course and proposed ways the school could maximize how the observatory is used.

The chance to work directly with administrators to implement a grant like the observatory proposal helps students develop skills that go beyond the traditional classroom environment, and gathering input about grants creates a school community where everyone has the ability to express their beliefs and vocalize their thoughts. In recent years, student membership in the student advisory committee has seen a dramatic increase. And small wonder why. As members, students help make true positive change in each school and gain marketable presentation, analytical, and collaborative skills that will serve them far beyond high school.

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