Starting with something that almost every first grader loves, chocolate, led to investigations of rainforests, ecosystems, agriculture, history, the economics of trade, and cooking. When Linda Salamanca, Diane Hawke, and Jen Schultz first began this project, they knew the children would be very excited about making chocolate and learning about the rainforest and the animals that lived there. The students were amazed at how much time and effort goes into making chocolate while exploring the harvesting and manufacturing process. But what surprised the team most, was “that first graders could understand the impact of the environmental effects and social injustices of chocolate harvesting and that they would become so passionate about making change and teaching others.”
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
First grade chocolatiers worked in groups to undertake research projects based on their chocolate-y interests. Some created models of cacao pods, trees, and their ecosystems, while others studied the harvesting and manufacturing of chocolate. Some created a map to show where cacao grows in the world and others demonstrated how cacao’s use has changed over time. Every group completed cycles of critique and revision to create a product that demonstrated their learning. In addition, the students examined the environmental impact of cacao farming and the social justice issues around underpaid farmers and child labor. The students created a PSA to encourage people to purchase only fair trade and sustainably farmed chocolate.
The science teacher, Julie Hutchins collaborated closely with the team. In their science class, students built a rainforest biome, created a web of interconnected rainforest species, investigated the life cycle of midges, dissected cacao pods to learn about their various parts, and experimented with recipes.
Throughout the project, students looked forward to the final week’s event — making chocolate. Students worked in tasting and design groups to devise their own chocolate recipes. The best recipes were produced in greater quantities and sold at the exhibition chocolate store.
Students created a chocolate museum, with areas dedicated to the history and manufacturing of chocolate, models of cacao harvesting, the steps in chocolate production, and maps of where chocolate is grown and traded. Another section of the museum recreated the rainforest ecosystem, with paper mache animals and written explanations of the relationships between species. The final (and most popular) section of the exhibit was the chocolate store, where student-made chocolate varieties were sold to families and the school community. Funds raised from chocolate sales were donated to non-profit organizations working to promote rainforest preservation and fair trade.