Molly Guikema and Chris Westveld are both English Language Arts teachers from Riley Street Middle School who know how important it is to show their sixth-grade students that Hudsonville is more than just a city they live in, but a community they can feel proud to be a part of.

In order to nurture this sense of belonging in their students, they devised a plan over the summer that would connect their class material with various local Hudsonville businesses. Students were put into groups of four and worked together to develop presentations and write background stories about their assigned business.

“This gives them an opportunity to learn outside the classroom,” Molly says. “They know that their work matters because their projects feel very real for them since they could see that they were impacting actual businesses.”

Students sat down with their assigned businesses and asked detailed, personal questions like “when did you first know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?” or “how long has your store been open?” to really understand the person’s story. Afterward, students said they felt like they knew the people behind their favorite bowling alleys, pizza shops and grocery stores – which were integral to the success of their presentations.

“I loved this project because I am new to the Hudsonville area, and I know nothing about it so learning about these businesses also taught me about the area and the people here,” sixth-grade student AJ Bradfield says.

Students created narratives in their own ways, including writing the personal stories of business professionals, further sharing the history of these businesses, creating infographics about the work they do and even writing stories that featured their own characters interacting with the business. Whatever type of project they completed, they presented them to the businesses and other students with the help of visual aids they made on poster boards.

Local businesses benefit from these interactions also as they enjoyed getting to know their everyday customers.

“We have been blessed to be in the Hudsonville community for 35 years so I’m very fond of the local schools, and I have gotten to know teachers and administrators personally,” owner of DJ’s pizza, Dan Snoeyink says. “Ultimately, I wanted to participate because the students had the opportunity to ask me so many awesome questions and it was a great learning experience for them.”

To further the value of their work, Dan invited students to see pizza being made behind the scenes at his shop, and even the chance to make some for fun. These connections are able to travel beyond school because students can forge genuine friendships with future employers or even feel inspired to become entrepreneurs themselves.

“Since their projects have many different components, these students are exposed to different jobs and opportunities that they weren’t aware of like journalism and entrepreneurship,” Chris says. “They are now thinking ‘Wow, I could do this for the future’.”  

The assignment required students to explore new skills like interviewing, storytelling and public speaking, which can be intimidating for middle school students. Despite that, students created projects and shared the stories of the businesses that make up Hudsonville. Their work ultimately fulfilled Chris and Molly’s original vision, which was helping the community feel more connected.

“When we met with Lake Michigan Credit Union to help with the storytelling, they worked with us to figure out what to keep and take out,” sixth-grade student Mitch Frielink says. “That helps us learn our own voice is not the only one that matters and that we have a stronger voice, together.”


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