Nanette Jensen, a sixth-grade teacher at Orem Elementary School, bought an old vending machine when she was teaching students on the autism spectrum to help them learn fine motor skills as well as money calculations.
When Jensen moved on to teaching sixth grade, she was trying to figure out a way to incorporate that same vending machine into the curriculum and one of the topics for her class was persuasive writing. She decided to have students write persuasive essays each year to their favorite snack companies, with a special focus on local companies as well as other national brands.
“I let the kids write to whoever they want,” Jensen said. “I tell them to do some research on local companies that make goods and services in Utah, and there’s always somebody that wants to write to somebody that is far away.”
This year, the class had Grandpa Beck’s games, Target, Costco, WinCo, Jensen’s Candy Company, Stephen’s Gourmet hot cocoa, and Utah Truffles all make donations. The biggest one was from Utah Truffles, which ended up donating over 61,000 truffles in total.
“We got a phone call from the Candy Co. company, which makes Utah Truffles, and they said, ‘Hey, we got this letter from Steven, and we’d love to donate to your classroom,’ ” Jensen said. “So, I’m really excited because I’m like, Yay, 24 truffles, that’s awesome.’ They said they wanted to send some boxes for the class but also wanted to donate to the whole school. Obviously, we’re schools and teachers, so we love everything that is free. He then said they had pallets for us.”
Jensen and her students were listening in shock when the word pallets came up. The exact amount was three pallets of truffle boxes and all of the students got to work unpacking the pallets from the truck. She said the students could not contain themselves when the truck arrived and the excitement was in the air.
After doing the math on the number of truffles there were in each box and how many boxes were on each pallet, the class counted more than 61,800 truffles.
Now every day that the students show up to class, the first question they ask is if any other companies have responded to their letters.
At the end of the day, this activity that Jensen does each year is still aimed toward the curriculum. She kept that in mind as she fast-forwarded a bit in social studies to look at the Industrial Revolution and assembly lines.
The students learned about how things moved into more company-based production to speed up the timelines.
The students then formed assembly lines to get the truffle boxes ready for the rest of the school and even used multiplication tables to figure out how many chocolates were in each box they gave out.
Jensen jokingly referred to Steven Herrera, the student who wrote the letter to Utah Truffles, as the king of the classroom. The title is fitting considering the class is focusing on the Middle Ages right now and Herrera reportedly had a big boost in self-esteem over his accomplishment.
As a result of the massive donation, every kid in the entire school received a box of truffles, each box containing 50 of the chocolates.
“We put a little note on the boxes and the paper explains how we got the truffles and that we want the kids to now to do a chivalrous act,” Jensen said. “We talk about chivalry in the Middle Ages and then we just kind of tied it into a random act of kindness. We gave them the truffles and said, ‘Now go spread some kindness, do something nice for somebody else, deliver some chocolates, eat some yourself but do something nice for someone else.’ ”
The school has been receiving some fun stories of what the students have been doing with the truffles and Jensen added that she saw some students delivering truffles to neighbors as she drove home on Thursday.
Even after distributing the truffles to the students of the school, there were still plenty left. The chocolates were then delivered to Vineyard Elementary School, Centennial Elementary School, and others so teachers could have some chocolate.
“We have lots of chocolates,” Jensen said.
In the years that Jensen has been doing this activity, she has never seen a donation of this size. She bought the vending machine in 2001, did the activity at another elementary school, and has been doing it at Orem Elementary School since 2014.
Normally the size of the donation is 24 or 36 items, depending on the size of the classroom.
The biggest message Jensen had for her students after this was that writing matters. It’s important to write the letter well, put a return address on it and place a stamp on it. She also emphasized the power of persuasion, mentioning that you never know what could happen when including evidence and the proper documentation.
Her students originally wanted to just send out some emails and see what would happen, but Jensen made sure that the students sent these letters in the mail. A lot of the students did not know where the stamp went, what a zip code is, or how to sign their names. This all furthered the learning that went along with the project.
“Also a big lesson that I think these kids learned was that their community cares,” Jensen said. “I think some of the kids grow up and a part of it is, I think they feel kind of entitled but I think they are learning that if they can become a good community member themselves it will pay off in the long run. These donations go deeper than just a donation.”
On top of getting the donations, the students will earn treats or goods depending on what the student who received that donation wants them to achieve. Some students are asking others to write three- to five-paragraph essays, others have classmates reading a book, getting a good grade on a test, or walking through the hallways quietly for a week to earn a treat or item.
All in all, Jensen considered the activity a great teaching moment for her class, which learned how to write a letter properly, how to use multiplication tables, how assembly lines impacted the Industrial Revolution, and more.
“I’ll do it forever until I retire and then I’ll give it to one of my daughters who teach,” Jensen said when asked if she would continue to do the project in her classroom. “As long as the vending machine holds out and keeps working, it’s kind of struggling but as long as it holds out we’re going to keep doing it.”