‘Be part of your world, not just in it’: Bird Rock teacher connects first-graders to community virtually

Bird Rock Elementary teacher Kristi Nelson (second from left, top row)
Bird Rock Elementary School teacher Kristi Nelson (top row, second from left) has found a way to keep her Community World Outreach projects going online.

A La Jolla teacher is carrying on her yearly community outreach projects for her first-grade students, finding ways to adapt the efforts online so her class can still learn about helping others.

Kristi Nelson, who has taught at Bird Rock Elementary School for five years, normally takes on one Community World Outreach project each month of the school year. The projects typically involve visits to local organizations, guest speakers in the classroom and some sort of action by the students.

Inspired by the poem “The Boy and the Starfish,” adapted from an essay by Loren Eiseley, first-grade students in Kristi Nelson’s class at Bird Rock Elementary School are striving to make a difference in their community and the world — one project at a time.

Past projects have seen Nelson’s students raising money to help animals displaced by wildfires, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people in shelters and collecting bags of art supplies to give to patients at Rady Children’s Hospital.

But this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, “we can’t go to these places, they can’t come visit us, they can’t show or touch the collection” of donated items, Nelson said. “The interface is a lot different.”

Though she initially thought, “I don’t know if I can do this,” Nelson began to format a virtual version of the projects, asking, “How do I make it work for 6-year-olds? There are all these uncertainties, but you try to start at the beginning and explain to them why you’re doing this.”

Nelson has already undertaken the first online project, a visit to a local fire station on Zoom as a captain walked his camera around the station. After the visit, students watched videos from the Burn Institute and made posters about fire safety and wrote letters to firefighters on the front lines of the recent wildfires in Northern California.

She said the fire station later delivered fire hats and stickers for all the children, which they proudly wore at their next Zoom class.

Making items such as letters and posters is important for younger children’s comprehension, Nelson said. “Anything that I can tactilely have these kids involved in [helps], because it connects more with them. I need to make it tangible for the kids, beyond the point of just listening.”

In November, a police officer will address the class virtually, with the students then choosing to adopt a police station, Nelson said. Nelson will approach the station about what it would like help with and then have the children collect “a basket of goodies” to drop off, along with letters they write.

Louise Cotterill, whose daughter Annabelle attends Nelson’s class, said the Community World Outreach projects help the children “understand the world going on around them [and] give them some role models, some inspirational people who are doing some great service in our community.” She said it’s “important to help kids grow their moral compass.”

Annabelle “is really excited” about the projects, Cotterill said, adding that they keep her “really engaged. She learns a lot from it; it’s piqued her curiosity.”

Nelson said the projects are important to create a sense of community and connect her class — currently 23 students — to the larger world.

“I call them the [classroom] B1 Starfish,” Nelson said, referring to a poem she reads yearly in which a boy throws a starfish back into the sea to help it survive. A man tells the child he can’t make much of a difference with miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish, but the boy says he made a difference to the starfish he saved.

“They are my starfish,” Nelson said of her students. “I’m making a difference one at a time. I am hoping they’re making a difference one at a time.”

Nelson said she has been doing such projects for the past 19 of her 25 years as a teacher, working under the motto “Be part of your world, not just in it.” She said she embodies that daily.

“I live it; I’m really active in [community] groups inside my neighborhood. I figure if this is who I am, hopefully I can instill a little bit of it in them and it snowballs a little bit,” she said.

Some projects are repeated from year to year, but others are new, Nelson said. “It has to do with what’s going on in the world,” such as a collection of supplies sent to North Carolina after Hurricane Florence caused damage there in 2018. Situations that “are overwhelming for a community … pull my direction first,” she said.

Many projects connect and overlap with her larger social studies unit, which teaches the students who and what occupations make up their community. Nelson often brings in guest speakers such as local lifeguards, athletes and doctors and invites parents to share their occupations.

Kristi Nelson hopes all her students, like this one in her first-grade class, will make a difference in their community.

This year, she said, she’ll present guest speakers over Zoom, such as San Diego City Council member Barbara Bry, who spoke to the class recently about the importance of voting.

Cotterill said the projects are especially appreciated now because they “keep the kids connected to their community at a time when [they] feel so isolated with not being in school.”

Nelson said the students look forward to the projects and were excited about the virtual fire station tour and guest speakers.

The projects, she said, provide access for all students, regardless of background.

“No matter where you are, you can think about making a placemat for somebody to be delivered to Meals on Wheels for seniors,” she said, referring to an upcoming project.

The projects are not a requirement of the school curriculum; Nelson does them on her own. “It’s what makes me tick,” she said. “I feel that in some ways it’s more, or equally as, important than the academics.” ◆