Civically-Engaged Connected Learning Teaching Writing

Be The Change in Northern Michigan and beyond


Through songwriting, performance poetry, mask-making, and other activities, Top of the Mitt Writing Project teachers and students seized the power to make the world a better piece of ground through our Be The Change project.

Originally published on February 22, 2021

Hey John Legend and LRNG champions–

Here’s how the students in rural northern Michigan choose to be seen and heard and celebrated–we hope you will join us as we continue to try to “Be The Change.”

One day you will 

tell your story 

of how you’ve 

overcome what

You’re going 

through now

and it will become

Part of someone 

else’s survival


These words, from the heart and experience of one of the more than 100 public school students, tell the story of our Be The Change project. Conceived by a group of like-minded teachers in northwest Michigan, the words created for this project, though challenged by the turmoil and the tumult of the Covid-19 pandemic, ring as true today as they did when they were written in chalk on a winter sidewalk in early 2020.

Combining music, poetry, and art, these students, many who did not earlier know one another, came together for a day of sharing.  Through songwriting, performance poetry, mask-making, and other activities, the students in grades 4-12 worked to understand each other, as well as the trials of youth.  

Jim Gillespie from the nearby Bliss Music Organization, as well as poet Shawntai Brown from Detroit, along with the teachers, coached, coaxed, and cheered as the students identified the many ways we can all change what we see as trouble in the world.

Racism, ageism, environmental degradation, and more were all addressed as students worked together to first identify the challenges, and then create positive responses for confronting these modern dilemmas. 

‘Scars are left like stretch marks that grace the thighs of Mother Earth,’ one student wrote about environmental challenges.  Still others confronted racism and gender inequality and more.  

In her poem ‘Dear Trees (like Aiyanas and Tamirs),’

Shawntai Brown wrote, 

You are not disposable 

Not melanin and melancholy

Or cracked bark

Not limbs whipped by winds

You are forest and fortress 


They thin you out

And you replenish

Grow upwards

Defy sky


Your leaves clapping like a choir


Student Ty Sisler-Richer tackles climate change in the poem “Rain Forest,” writing … 


Slash and burn turns day into night

For the fires in the rainforest rage 

The world watches in helpless horror

As we enter a new age


… before stating “Be the change. It starts with you,” and then challenging us all by asking “What will you do?”


In “This is For You,” Kaitlyn Hammerle addresses many of the social justice issues students face, explaining … 


This is for the picked on, for the bullied, for the discriminated against. 

For the boys who are girls and the girls who are boys. 

For the dysphoric and the euphoric. Stare them down


… and then concludes by stating, “This is for you.”


Seizing on the importance of confronting such issues, these teachers and students shared heart-felt words and images that demonstrate without question how passion can move to words, and words move to action.  In every instance, these writers strive to Be The Change.

This is the script we composed for a video of the all-student day:

“Make the world a better piece of ground.” Poet and farmer Wendell Berry implores us to do more than passively accept the world as it is. He urges us to play a part to improve what we see and who we know. Together, through art and writing, music, and dance, we can lift our neighbors and heal our neighborhoods.  Young and old, black and white, with generous grant support from John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, and the National Writing Project, Top of the Mitt Writing Project teachers and students seized the power to make the world a better piece of ground through our Be The Change project.

Our project was generously supported by the following community partners in this effort:

Be The Change was possible only through the support of these partner organizations.

For more, check out the article from the Petoskey News Review about our work and our students.