Top Teacher: New Round Lake High civics class inspires students to do good in their community

A new free store of donated items for people who rely on the Avon Township Food Pantry, an oral history project aiming to tell the story of the Round Lake area, and a $30,000 scholarship fund made up of donations from organizations, including the Chicago Bears, to pay for enrichment activities for children and young teens.

What do these initiatives have in common? They were all dreamed up, worked on and completed by Round Lake High School students in a new honors-level civics class taught by Doug Barnshaw and Nick Miller that started in the fall.

It was up to the students to decide what about the Round Lake community they could make better, create a plan on how to do that, who in the community they should partner with to make it happen, and to actually get it done. And the students did all of that on seven projects in the last seven months.

  Doug Barnshaw, standing, and Nick Miller, seated with laptop at right background, created a class for Round Lake High School seniors designed to inspire them to give back to the community. John Starks/

How were they able to get all that work done in such a short amount of time? Like all good teachers, both men credited the students

"It would not matter how much effort we put into the curriculum if the students weren't willing to try this with us and put themselves out there," Miller said.

The class was only for the fall semester, but students continue to meet this spring to keep working on projects even though it doesn't count for a grade.

"I've always believed that if you tie people to the school and make the work interesting and important for them they'll keep doing it," Barnshaw said.

For example, several students have met regularly with Avon Township Supervisor Michele Bauman in the lead up to the debut of their free store at the food pantry on Friday, March 10.

Bauman said she has been so impressed by the students, who have solicited donated items from area businesses to fill the free store.

"They care for their community and they want to help," Bauman said. "The best thing is the kids have to figure out how to do this from beginning until the very end."

Cheri Richardson, executive director of Gorter Family Foundation, said she was also impressed by the group of students who pitched her organization on donating to the scholarship fund for younger students. Richardson said she asked the students to submit a grant request on paper like anyone else would.

"It was important, in my opinion, for them to be treated like anyone else, even though my heart was with them," Richardson said. "They just did it and did not need any extra help from me."

  Doug Barnshaw, right, and Nick Miller, far left, meet with some students from their Honors Community Civics class at Round Lake High School last week, even though the course was only for the fall semester. John Starks/

Honors civics student Miranda Robles was part of the student group that pitched the Chicago Bears for a contribution to the scholarship fund. Robles said the class was very empowering for the students, and she was proud that younger students in the district are going to have opportunities because of their work.

Honors civics student Carolina Vilchis said while students "were running the show," she considered the guidance of their teachers to be the backbone of the projects.

"I became more confident with communication skills because they helped us develop them," Vilchis said.

Richardson said Barnshaw and Miller have succeeded in creating a safe space for students to learn about their community and work with the people in it, including adults.

"I am such a fan of them and their creativity and building spaces for the students to have this experience," Richardson said. "I hope they continue to do that at Round Lake High School."

Bauman was similarly hopeful for the program's future.

"I'm telling everybody this has to go beyond Round Lake," Bauman said. "And even middle school students should do it; there is no age limit when it comes to volunteering."

Miller said he thinks classes like honors civics has the potential to be successful practically anywhere.

"Students can be inspired to work within their community so easily," Miller said. "They can see the meaning and the impact their work can make."

What is the plan for next year's crop of honors civics students? Barnshaw said because of the student-led nature of the class, it is hard to know.

"It's difficult to tell anyone what's going to happen because each project is unique and they go in such different directions," Barnshaw said. "It's a testament to the kids because there is no blueprint for the way any of the projects are going to go."

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