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Students turning plastic shopping bags into sleeping mats for the homeless

Nov. 27, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

SCOTT DEPOT -- Many people talk about helping the homeless, but students at Scott Teays Elementary are taking action. And they're helping the environment in the process.

Seventy fourth-graders at the Scott Depot school are turning plastic shopping bags into sleeping mats for homeless people at Union Mission in Charleston. Marsha Cobb, the teacher who initiated to project, said the students are learning while they work.

"As teachers we are always looking for ideas to help our students learn about the world they live in, how they are connected to that world and just how far reaching their actions can be," Cobb said. "This project allows us to teach math (measurement), social studies (human migration, economy) and science (environment).

"We're also teaching them about writing. We are keeping a journal of our project, and one class is even keeping a blog, so we are touching technology, also."

Fourth-grade students are years away from the work world, but Cobb said they are learning practical skills while helping others. "Some of the life skills the students need to become successful in the 21st century are team work, group interactions and following directions," she said. "Each student is given a specific job they must become an expert at, such as cutting the strips neatly, connecting the strips into the balls of 'plarn' (plastic yarn), sorting and storing the project."

Working on the assembly line helps the students learn about efficiency and how they depend on each other. "Learning the elements of Henry Ford's assembly line has taught the students how much faster and, more importantly, how much more productive we can be," Cobb said. "The job market in the 21st century will require our students to be productive members of a team. They need to understand that each job will in some way depend on the job of a partner in another part of our ever-shrinking world."

Cobb said she learned about recycling shopping bags into mats from a newspaper article. "I read an article in the Charleston Gazette about the project. I taught the fourth-graders to crochet in the past when we couldn't go outdoors for playtime," she said. "It was a way to keep the students engaged while being confined.

"The boys and girls loved the whole process and would ask if they could work on their crochet during class time. This experience taught me the kids would enjoy learning to crochet and the opportunity to talk about the environment, as well as helping the West Virginia homeless population."

Terri Duncan and Elizabeth Willis, also fourth-grade teachers, invited Andrew Beckner of Union Mission and Charleston attorney Melissa Starcher to speak to the students about the homeless problem.

"After hearing these two individuals, the fourth-graders were full of questions," Cobb said. "But more importantly, they had ideas of how we could use this project to aid in the comfort and care of our fellow citizens.

"The students quickly began a brainstorming session of how to make as many mats as possible to give to Union Mission. The students wanted to know if we could also make plastic pillows to go with the mats. The comfort of the individuals who would use the sleeping mats was very important to the kids."

Cobb said the students plan to present the mats, pillows and other items to Union Mission by the end of the school year. "This is a year-long project. It will take us that long to teach each student how to crochet," she said. "The starting of the mat is the hardest part, so I make all the starts for the students.

"Sometimes we have to tear out a row or two to make corrections, but that is what learning is all about -- making mistakes and then learning from them. These students will learn some life-long lessons -- how to take an object, think about it in a different way and make their lives and the lives of those around them better."

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