JANESVILLE

It’s nice to be nice.

But does nice matter? How about kindness? Or is having something to do during indoor recess most important?

Those are all difficult philosophical questions—except for that last one, which is more of a transcendent question for the ages, especially the ages of 5 to 12.

Students at Van Buren Elementary School will provide answers to all those questions Friday. It’s Celebration Day, an end-of-summer-school rite at Van Buren where kids showcase what they’ve done to help each other, their school and their community.

In summer school, Van Buren kids use project-based learning to tackle real-world problems.

Project-based learning is an updated version of what used to be called “hands-on learning.” Instead of working quietly at their desks on Popsicle-stick structures, students work in groups, noisily tossing ideas around and discarding or revamping those that don’t work.

Kids came up with a variety of ideas for their projects. The ideas included making Ugly Dolls—not actually ugly—for the kids at the YWCA Rock County’s Care House, puppy chow snack mix for guests at the GIFTS Men’s Shelter and buttons with positive messages for kids who are having a hard day.

They also designed activities for indoor recess, transformed the playground with positive messages and created videos to explain the school’s “standard operating procedures” or SOPs. That last one is Van Buren speak for “school rules.”

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Austin Bier, 10, places marbles into a pipe while working on STEM-related indoor recess activities Tuesday at Van Buren Elementary School in Janesville.

Principal Stephanie Pajerski said involving students from the start, having them come up with problems they want to solve, gives them ownership. With ownership comes understanding and empathy.

Austin Bier, 10, and Will Woerth, 7, developed activities for indoor recess Tuesday. While the two boys worked on a marble track, other students worked on Lego Robotics challenges, hide-and-seek math problems and other options.

Bier said playing basketball in the gym was, to date, the only tolerable way to spend recess inside. That’s why these projects are so important.

In another room, Brooke Larson, 10, showed off the Ugly Doll she made.

“I made my doll with one eye because everybody is different,” Brooke said.

We asked summer school students why a child at the Care House would like an Ugly Doll. The answers came flying in a clamor of kind words and half-completed sentences: “They might like to have a toy to play with,” “something to cuddle with,” “from a kid.”

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Students paint a fence surrounding a dumpster with outlines of people holding hands Tuesday at Van Buren Elementary School in Janesville.

Chloe Adams, 9, painted life-size outlines of kids on the white fence around the school’s dumpsters. Each figure had a supportive message written on it. The goal was to make the school and playground look more cheerful—dumpsters have limited curb appeal—and to support kids.

Sometimes kids say mean things or talk behind each other’s backs, she said. When kids are sad or feeling left out, it’s “hard for them to learn,” Chloe said.

That seems to prove Pajerski’s point: Students who develop such projects on their own will better understand the projects’ impact. They’re not parroting something a teacher said, but rather articulating their own ideas and feelings.

It’s an educator’s job to teach students how to look at something from someone else’s perspective, she said.

“Even if you have to agree to disagree, you can still appreciate where they are coming from, and you can do it in a respectful, kind way,” Pajerski said. “We can celebrate that we aren’t all the same and that we don’t have the same outlook and experiences.”

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