During this past school year, a group of mostly strangers donated $4,197 worth of books to my classroom library (here's the list). I didn't earn a grant for this; I have no wealthy benefactors; and I didn't ask for donations from readers of this blog or its social networks. No — I just asked for books on DonorsChoose.org, and people who believe in education — angels, basically — gave. All told, the $11,195 worth of classroom supplies that I've received through Donors Choose over the years has come from people I'll never meet.
The Internet is awesome.
In this post, I'd like to share a few lessons learned during this past school year and during the entirety of my experience as a Donors Choose teacher. My hope is that you, or someone you know, will be able to use this information to get the resources you need for your kids, whether books or Probeware or Chromepads or tadpoles or footballs or calculators.
My first project failed, but the failure was productive
I can still picture the first time I heard about Donors Choose (here's their website, by the way; here's my brand new, You Name the Price, Donors Choose Starter Kit). I was a 2nd-year teacher in Baltimore, and I was standing in my kitchen, opening an envelope sent by a friend from college. In the envelope was a clipped magazine article describing a start-up called Donors Choose.
Within a few months, I had signed up for an account (it's all free) and requested my first project. I needed supplies that would help me try out some workshop stuff from Nancie Atwell's In the Middle (then in the second edition). For my 7th grade classroom, I was requesting about $400 worth of journals, folders, ink pens and other sundry supplies.
The project failed to receive funding. When I look back, I think the failure stemmed from a few factors:
- My project wasn't cost-effective. I was asking for simple supplies from over-priced vendors. Now, Donors Choose integrates with Amazon, so supplies are much more reasonably priced.
- There weren't as many donors then. Donors Choose has been around for twice as long now as it had been when I wrote my first project. People like Oprah and Stephen Colbert have promoted it since then. This means there are waaay more folks who are surfing Donors Choose looking to give to great classrooms.
- It was my first time. I was brand new to Donors Choose and I had no one to guide me. But when at first you don't succeed…
A year later, I got back on the horse, and I rode it around to my first Donors Choose victories. Class sets of Romeo and Juliet and a bunch of copies of The Outsiders for my 8th graders, completely paid for by Not Me? Yes, please.
Five years, $11,000+, and lots of lessons later
I keep track of every single project I've ever had funded through Donors Choose (you can see the entire list here), and the total amount of donations is dumbfounding: $11,195 since that first project request in Baltimore. Along the way, I've gotten better at making Donors Choose a low-key part of my annual routine (I share that workflow in the Starter Kit — purchasing that baby for whatever price you'd like helps keep this blog running).
1. Opportunities for kids can't be quantified in dollars
The opportunities donors have given my kids really can't be quantified. Again and again, I've seen kids' minds light on fire — for some through whole-class readings of All Quiet on the Western Front or Things Fall Apart; for others, through independent reading books from our classroom library; still for others, through some of the sweet tech Donors Choose has given us, like a podcast recorder or an iPad.
With that said…
2. Donors like both necessity and enrichment projects
Sometimes I've asked for books that I needed in order to make my curriculum happen; other times, I've written Donors Choose projects for books that a single kid has requested.
3. I am a poor predictor of which projects will have the biggest impact
I used to think that it was smartest to write a huge Donors Choose project for $1,000+ and hope someone would fund it. There were a few problems with this:
- Larger projects are less likely to get fully funded. (I rarely see a $100-$200 project request go unfunded, but I often see $1,000 projects fail.)
- Larger projects may not necessarily be the most likely to impact my kids.
For example, a few years back, I asked for an iPad. I had all of these great ideas for how it was going to provide our class the opportunity to interact with students and professionals around the world.
Unfortunately, technology is tricky. What I thought would be an easy marriage between the iPad and our school's existing technology was… well, not such an easy marriage. The iPad did serve some purposes in my room, but none as grand as I had hoped. And that was a large project that I had high hopes for.
Conversely, this past year, Kyle kept saying, “Mr. Stuart, Mr. Stuart, we gotta get some Matt de la Pena books.” Finally, I gave in and spent the 20 minutes or so to request the books. The project got funded, and it turns out that de la Pena isn't over-hyped! Kids lined up to read his books, and they now have the worn look of books that have actually been read. I like that.
So, if I'm a poor predictor of project impact, that means…
4. The best strategy is to responsibly ask for many small projects
When I say responsibly, I mean only ask for stuff that you, in your professional judgment, believe will promote the long-term flourishing of your kids. Try to think through what could go wrong — not much can go wrong with books; plenty can go wrong with technology.
But with that said, if you've got a sweet vision for classroom resources that your kids need, it is smart to have a few lures in the water at all times. If your vision is huge, break it down into $100-$200 projects. This is the Chunking Strategy that I discuss in one of the videos in the Starter Kit.
The only downside to having lots of lures in the water is that it takes time…
5. It's most efficient to batch write a few projects every few months
This is part of the annual Donors Choose workflow that I developed this past year. Even though this past year was the highest-donation-amount year for my career so far, I would say that I probably put the least amount of time into Donors Choose stuff (unless you count the Google Saturday debacle — and you shouldn't count that because I publicly confessed my sins). The key is, on a night when you're feeling like a raucous party (when the spouse and kids are in bed and you've got a lonely, well-crafted brew in the fridge), pull out your wish list of classroom resources (keeping one is part of my workflow) and write a few project proposals on Donors Choose. If they're all the same kind of project, you can use a lot of the same copy from project to project — a strategy I discuss in another of the videos in the Starter Kit.
Within an hour or so, you've got three or more projects submitted to Donors Choose — and, since projects stay live for 90 days, that's the bulk of your Donors Choose work for an entire quarter. Boomshakalaka.
6. Building a dream classroom is a gradual, brick-by-brick process
Well, in my case it was actually book-by-book, but you get the picture.
7. People love to see the impact of their support.
If we want people to support our work in the classroom in any way, we need to try showing them what their support does. This is why I love giving money to Charity Water and why I'm leery to do it for the Red Cross. Transparency is huge. Donors Choose makes this easy for teachers and donors with its simple thank you process.
8. Plenty of people still believe in public education
They aren't out running for office or creating campaign ads, and so we often don't hear from them. But there are people who think that your work as an educator matters and should be supported, not just with words but with wallets.
I don't know about you, but I can often get derailed by a single negative comment from a student, parent, or colleague. Yet every time I get one of those magical emails from Donors Choose saying, “Congratulations, your project is fully funded,” it's proof that, indeed, I am not alone in this.
I hope this post helps you or someone you know get started on Donors Choose. Please consider keeping Teaching the Core online by purchasing the Starter Kit for yourself or a friend.