Roland Park Country School fifth grade teachers Peggy Brooks and Kaci Garland charged their students with the mission of promoting positive change and making their communities and the world a better place. The students brainstormed, researched and developed their own proposals and traveled to Annapolis, MD to meet with political leaders to discuss their ideas. This project began as a means towards real understanding of government and evolved into a project that empowers young girls to use their words to promote positive change.

Written by Peggy Brooks & Kaci Garland, Grade 5 Teachers

If you could be a force for real, positive change in your neighborhood, your community, or even your state, what action would you take?

We pose this question to students every January upon their return from winter break.  With this evocative prompt, talk of holidays and time spent with family quickly shifts to serious conversations about how each girl intends to make the world a better place.

As fifth grade homeroom teachers at Roland Park Country School, we are continually searching for opportunities to empower our future leaders to be agents of good.  From their earliest days at RPCS, our students are immersed in a culture of service. Whether delivering art supplies to young cancer patients at Johns Hopkins, collecting towels for the SPCA, or visiting nursing homes and outreach centers, our girls know how to think beyond themselves.  By the time they reach our doors, they are bursting with ideas about how to improve their communities or help their neighbors.  What better time to channel their creative thinking while developing some critical communication skills along the way!

Our project begins with a simple question, and the process that follows is likewise basic in form. Students shape an idea; learn as much as they can through reliable sources (including guest speakers); craft letters; and then boldly present their views to state representatives in Annapolis.  While visiting the Capitol, our young lobbyists eagerly convey the importance of their issues during face-to-face meetings (which they schedule themselves).  In addition, each student presents her letter as concrete reinforcement of problem and solution.  The letters consume much literacy class time as girls are not only working to advocate change but growing into fluent persuasive writers.

Fifth graders’ campaign for change doesn’t end in literacy class.  To problem solve through state government, students must understand how the institution works.  To this end, girls recreate the General Assembly in social studies by constructing their own Senate and House of Delegates.  They follow established protocol when meeting in committees and debating “legislation” that ends in a formal vote.  Homeroom periods also become productive times for role playing important social interactions and practicing effective communication on “Lobbying Day,” with extra emphasis applied to “thinking on one’s feet.” By the time they step into the State House, students are ready and energized!

This year’s class, like those before it, was brimming with ideas.   Topics ranged from increasing the penalty for Grace’s Law violations to equipping school buses with seatbelts. Current fifth grade student Riley B. was inspired by an article to consider ways to combat graffiti in her community.  Riley investigated the problem and potential solutions.  Through class discussion and independent research, she learned about graffiti-designated areas.  Armed with this background knowledge, she proposed a “Graffiti Park” where “artists could express their feelings in positive ways” and stipulated that this be a place where graffiti could be displayed “without fear of penalty.” Her idea included an admission fee to help defray upkeep and other administrative costs.

As the trip to Annapolis drew near, Riley admitted she was nervous about meeting her legislators.  She spent time practicing talking points, answering impromptu questions, and extending firm handshakes to teachers.  When it came time for her appointments, this young advocate was prepared and passionate.  Riley later recounted that after the first meeting, she realized “…it was easy.  I just talked about my idea, answered questions, and felt confident.”  She returned to school that afternoon with a sense of possibility.

In the weeks that followed, students received letters from delegates and senators thanking them for their time and detailing legislation that supported their topics.  The arrival of pale cream envelopes with the burgundy return address incited many girls.  Riley found one such envelope in her classroom mailbox on a rainy Wednesday morning.  As she read through the enclosed two pages, she began to dance with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  Then she ran to the front of the room and with the papers clutched tightly in hand, exclaimed, “I got a letter back from my senator, and he is actually doing something about my idea!”

Senator James Brochin not only responded to Riley’s proposal but included a copy of his own (forwarded to Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks) that mirrored the fifth grader’s idea.  Senator Brochin wrote, “I cannot encourage you enough to keep dreaming and sharing your thoughts and ideas.  It gives me much hope for the future of our nation.” What began as a seed, planted in an 11-year-old girl by an old Baltimore Sun article, had taken root and sprouted a life of its own.

When asked how she felt about the Senator’s response, Riley stated she was proud that the Senator was acting on her idea.  “It might do something to change the graffiti problem. It’s exciting and overwhelming. I can’t believe I actually did that.”  Riley went on to say that even if her idea does not result in a graffiti park, she still feels as though she made an impact and more importantly, has the confidence to advocate a solution to “a different problem next time.”

About 15 years ago, our profoundly creative fifth grade predecessors, along with a city councilman (who later was elected to the House of Delegates) conceived an idea that was larger than any people, places, or events surrounding it.  It began as a means toward real understanding of government and evolved into a project that empowered young girls like Riley B. to use their words to promote positive change.  That idea at its core reflects the heart of learning and continues to play a key role in molding some of tomorrow’s most promising leaders.

If you could be a force for cultivating leaders in your school, what action would you take?

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