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Middle schools kids strive to collect one million pennies

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GROTON — What began for local middle school pupils as a simple project to collect one million pennies has turned into a lesson in understanding the enormity of human suffering that was the Holocaust.

“I basically felt that numbers relating to the Holocaust that get thrown around are huge, and that kids don’t understand what a million really is,” said Niki Rockwell, an eighth grade teacher at the Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School. “We actually had a whole unit on the Holocaust, looking at its history and we also read the play of the Diary of Anne Frank.”

With thoughts of the millions who died at the hands of Nazis during World War II, some of Rockwell’s pupils decided to link what they learned with an annual event at the middle school involving the collection of one million objects.

“Part of it was the sense by the kids that after they started studying about the Holocaust the pennies they were collecting became more than pennies, but human souls,” said Rockwell.

Out of 225 eighth grade pupils in nine home rooms, Rockwell said that a month ago a group of about 40 pupils decided that they would try to collect one million pennies. So far they have collected 25,000.

“Collecting pennies relates back to the idea that we didn’t want to collect something that would just get thrown away like in other years,” Rockwell said. “I think the reason the penny won out is because it’s such a hard concept.

“Normally each home room tries to come up with a million things that they collected,” said Rockwell. “The project is student-generated and during the first week they actually think they can come up with a million objects (in whatever category they chose) until finally, they realize that they can’t come up with it. From there, they present to the different home rooms what they did come up with.”

In past years, said Rockwell, pupils have tried to collect a million popcorn kernels, thumbprints, grains of rice, and even dots, but have rarely succeeded in reaching their goal.

“But then, just about a year ago, parent Amy Degen came up to me and said that she saw a fabulous movie called ‘Paperclips’ and thought that I’d really like it,” said Rockwell. “The project that the kids did in that movie started the same way our project did (inspired by the Holocaust) only in the movie, the kids collected a million paper clips.”

Impressed with the film’s inspirational message that even children in a small town could make a difference and touch peoples’ hearts all over the world, Rockwell had the movie screened for her pupils.

“After our students finished their own collections, we showed this movie to them, and my particular home room decided to collect a million pennies,” Rockwell said. “Now it’s become an after school project. We live in the whitest district in all of Massachusetts, and one of the intentions of the project is to make the kids aware about the issue of diversity and preparing them for the democratic world that we are living in.

“What can you do to educate kids about that?” asked Rockwell. “Bring in food from different cultures? That’s not really promoting an understanding of diversity, but it’s difficult to ask a school district that is pinched for cash to come up with money for diversity training. So, half the money we make from the million pennies we collect will be used for diversity training.

To get an idea of just how many one million is, after collecting 25,000 pennies, the pupils have so far managed to almost fill a single five-liter Poland Springs water bottle. Rockwell guessed that if the project is ever completed, the pennies would fill at least 66 such bottles.

“Each stage of the project has its different challenges,” said Rockwell, who was not sure if there were even one million pennies in the entire Nashoba Valley region. “Are there banks who will take the pennies? Will they want them rolled? We may have to ask families to help roll them or have a penny-rolling weekend. For now, we’re putting them in Poland Spring bottles because we want the kids to see what one million pennies look like.”

At the moment, Rockwell said the project is being worked on after school by a core group of 15 pupils with a few more in different grades that come in and out, but morale is high.

“The kids believe it’s possible to collect a million pennies, and they’re hoping they’ll get even more than that,” said Rockwell. “They’re very excited about it. The majority feel very proud of themselves. They feel empowered.”

Beyond the day to day collecting of pennies, Rockwell said the reason for starting the project in the first place is never far from her pupils’ minds.

“A concern I have is for the pupils to learn that it’s up to them to protect the fundamentals of democracy and citizenship and to feel that they can play a part in the process and that their part is important,” said Rockwell. “(In Groton-Dunstable), we live in a social apartheid. As we roll or collect our pennies, we have great discussions about that. We’re having an open forum for those ideas.

“If the students can be better prepared with these conversations, we can work toward a more inclusive country,” she said. “The other thing is that our Holocaust curriculum is pretty depressing. It’s really not valuable to waste time feeling guilty. It’s not useful. The thing to do is to accept the responsibility of doing something about it. That would be useful.

“We really need to make that commitment to all the people in our country,” said Rockwell. “The Holocaust isn’t just something in black and white that happened in the past. We need to continue to work for liberty and justice for all.

“It’s really inspiring seeing what the kids believe is possible. It’s actually very moving,” she said. “What’s really refreshing to see is how many kids are really craving to make a difference, but don’t know how. This project is an outlet to make a difference, and there’s a part that they can play in it.”

In the meantime, the day-to-day work of collecting the pennies goes on with the pupils reaching out to the rest of the school for help.

“At this point, everybody in school is giving pennies,” said Rockwell. “So the students are just getting to the point where they’re asking their parents to make collections at work and contacting local businesses to help out. We’ve even had word from a professor at the University of Lowell who asked if there was anything he could do.”

But sooner or later, the pupils will exhaust the possibilities of collecting pennies in their hometowns and will need to reach farther afield.

“I think that the word is getting out more and more,” said Rockwell. “Part of it has been the ‘Paperclips’ movie, but I definitely think that people are enthusiastic and supportive once they hear about it.”

“There’s no real deadline to getting the million pennies,” said Rockwell. “Some people feel that we should have them by the end of the year, but I feel that’s a little unrealistic. The Paperclips project in the movie took four years. We’re going to end when it ends.”

For information or to donate pennies call Rockwell at (978) 448-6155.