From Me to We: Creating and Hosting an Empty Bowls event

By: Noah Kaufman
from Milwaukee Jewish Day School

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Economics/ Business, English/ Writing/ Language Arts, Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa, Social Studies

Design-Thinking Model, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
7, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Middle school, High school

We strive to perform Tikkun Olam and assist those in poverty. Through a series of scaffolded skill-building experiences, ranging from letter writing to pottery, we organized an Empty Bowls event; donating proceeds to local organizations dedicated to helping those less fortunate. We transformed our goal into our passion.

Entry Narrative

In addition to this document, included are the following folders of documentation:

Photographic evidence

Articles written about learning

Student videos

Documentation and planning

Student mid-year presentations


Classroom Goal

A difficult task in education is to shift the focus from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School (MJDS), this is one of our  missions.  We work toward this goal by implementing within our curriculum our core values: Empathy, Wonder, and Tikkun Olam.  As a Social Studies teacher, I want to help students better understand problems in our community and take a solutions-oriented approach in addressing these issues.  My mission as an educator is to help my students become Jewish citizens of the highest standard, who wonder how to display empathy toward others, and take an active role in making the world a better place (Tikkun Olam).  This mission is completed via activities and lessons utilizing the Common Core Four-C’s: Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking, and Creativity.


In partnership with my students, we developed a scaffolded list of activities designed to encourage and incorporate the skills needed to develop within our framework.  Our journey began together in September and culminated in February with a mid-year presentation; with activities designed to foster growth concerning the Four C’s and develop the skills of our students.


Overview of Skills addressed

Communication Honor Flight – handwritten business letters skills and formating
CollaborationHonor Flight – peer editing across communityResearch – collaboration among individuals doing researchDriving Question Board – discussions on how to address the issues posed on the Driving Board
Critical ThinkingResearch – topic of hunger in MilwaukeeDriving Question Board – questions about hunger to research
CreativityHonor Flight – developing personal message in letters


Overview of Skills addressed – continued

Communication Letters – seeking donations and attendance to event;

Calling – asking for donations and attendance

Letters – seeking attendance from community membersEmpty Bowls – greeting, assisting, and serving all attendees of event;

Mid-year presentations – presenting to community our learning outcomes

CollaborationBowl Making – teaching, supervising, and assisting others to make bowlsBowl making teaching, supervising, and assisting others to make bowlsEmpty Bowls – working together to set up and run event;

Mid-year presentation – helping edit and revise presentations

Critical ThinkingBowl Making – developing effective clay manipulation techniquesBowl Making – developing effective clay manipulation techniquesMid-year presentation – researching facts and information relevant to presentation
CreativityBowl Making – creating unique designsBowl Making – creating unique designsMid-year presentation  – creating attractive and effective presentation


Communication – Focused Skill Addressed

On the first day of school I asked my students the following question: ‘If you had $1 billion, what would you do with it and why?’  Students wrote personal responses in their writing journal.  I ask this question not only so I can gauge where my students are in relation to my goal, but also to plant the seed of empathy in their minds.  My goal is that the students will learn that charity can be just as rewarding, if not more, than self-indulgence (we later answered this question again and to see the differences in answers is startling).


On the second day of school, a World War II veteran came into the classroom to share his experiences and stories.  The following day, the students mentioned that the veteran was a hero and deserved to feel our appreciation.  The students decided it would be appropriate to write him a thank you note for his service.  Through my own personal experiences, I was familiar with the organization Honor Flight, an organization which flies veterans to their respective war memorial in Washington D.C. and returns them to a hero’s welcome.  I decided we would write letters to other veterans on the Honor Flight who may not have received the appreciation for their service they deserved.


We began the letter writing process using a strict template.  Students drafted their letters, peer-edited them with other students in their grade, peer-edited them with students in other grades, and then peer-edited them with students from one of our partner schools, Milwaukee College Preparatory School.  During this exercise, the students learned effective writing skills.  They learned how to draft a letter, including proper greetings and salutations and how to address an envelope.  We continued to write letters and students slowly weaned off the letter template provided and began to personalize their letters while maintaining the professional skills they learned.

Image 1. Photo of veteran on Honor Flight receiving letters from family, friends, and community.


In September we sent 187 letters thanking veterans participating in the Honor Flight.  In addition, a local business donated $10 to the Honor Flight Organization for each letter the students sent.  These funds helped subsidize the cost of transporting and caring for veterans on the trip.  In total, we raised $1,870 for the organization.


Critical Thinking – Focused Skill Addressed


In October, we began our main focus: hunger in our community.  After exhaustive research using appropriate Google Operators and effective research skills, we contacted two local food agencies we could partner with: St. Benedict’s Community Meal Program (St. Ben’s) and The Gathering of Southeast Wisconsin (The Gathering).  The programs are similar in nature- St. Ben’s provides dinner primarily for working-poor families while The Gathering serves breakfast primarily for homeless and low-income individuals.   We wanted to ascertain the need for assistance and the scope of the issue at hand.  We arranged for a field trip to St. Ben’s so as to familiarize ourselves with their organization, but also to ask questions we developed.  Learning directly from the source increases the accuracy of answers received.


Image 2. Photo of students at St. Ben’s during a Question and Answer session with Brother David, director of the Community Meal Program.


During Sukkot we prepared 100 snack bags to donate to St. Ben’s.  After Sukkot we arrived at St. Ben’s to meet Brother David, the Capuchin Monk in charge of the Community Meal Program.  Brother David introduced himself, his religious ideology (Franciscan is an order of Christianity many of our students had never encountered), and how his organization helps the community.  We asked questions about the clientele of St. Ben’s (primarily working-poor families – families in which one or both parents work at lower income jobs and the family is near the poverty line), the source of their funding (donations from individuals and organizations), and how we can help (donations of time, food, and money).  This question and answer session gave us an opportunity to then tailor our classroom discussion and focus our efforts more locally.


After meeting Brother David, the students were eager to serve a dinner at St. Ben’s.  Having never done an organized meal serving before, students had to seek permission from their parents, the school administration, the school board, and St. Ben’s.  

Image 3. Photo of students prior to serving meal at St. Ben’s for the first time.


During our first night at St. Ben’s, the students helped serve a total of 319 meals, of which 54 were to children, to members of our community.  One of the most touching parts of the evening was when the students sat down to eat with the guests.  The conversations and connections made expanded their worldview.  Speaking with people different than ourselves enforced our mission of helping others in need, in addition to putting a human face on such an abstract problem as hunger.  We realized everyone, regardless of economic status, should be treated with empathy and provided an opportunity to live a happy, healthy life.  We continue to serve dinner one evening a month during the school year.  We average over 300 meals served per event and have formed close relationships with many of the guests and staff.


The next day, students shared their experiences and quickly it spread what we did.  The idea of helping other people became infectious and the students wanted to do more.  

Image 4. Photo of Driving Question Board in classroom, encouraging questions and inspiring Critical thinking.


We created a Driving Question Board in which students posted questions revolving around our topic: How can we make the world a better place (with the subtopic of hunger)?  Question after question focused on hunger in Milwaukee and how we can help those in need.  Students wanted to learn more about hunger and food security in our own city.


In November, two months into school, we began a curricular focus on poverty and hunger, specifically how it impacts Milwaukee.  By utilizing the Driving Question Board, our curricular focus was entirely student owned and driven because the students were researching topics and answering questions they developed.  No longer was I driving our study, but instead helping to facilitate my student’s efforts.  Many of the research reports studied were produced by The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and adapted for our purposes (our initial delve into research studies).


Our refined goal was to help those who lack food security in Milwaukee.  We needed to create an action plan for how we would achieve that goal, but after multiple discussions and research opportunities, we were still stuck until one student mentioned an event she recently attended.  Our discussion became more enthralling and students became more excited.  Eventually, our students came up with our action plan: create and host an Empty Bowls event at our school, with all revenue benefiting St. Ben’s and The Gathering.  We would make clay bowls, prepare soup, and invite community members to attend our event with the intention of raising enough money and awareness to positively impact our community.


Additionally, with Thanksgiving fast approaching, we reached out to The Gathering to inquire as to how we could help their organization.  They replied with “make pie” so we set out to get experience working together in a kitchen, baking together.

Image 5.  Student making pumpkin pie for The Gathering for their Thanksgiving celebration.


Our students banded together for an afternoon to bake 15 pies for The Gathering which were served at their Thanksgiving meal.


Creativity – Focused Skill Addressed


Empty Bowls is a simple event:  visitors purchase pre-made clay bowls and fill those bowls with soup.  At the end of the evening, the bowls are taken home and left empty and in sight, reminding people there are community members still without food and there is work to be done to solve this issue.  All money raised is donated to local food agencies.  We, as a group, decided to take this on and having never done this, we would need to think outside the box to ensure success.


Our first step is harnessing our communication skills developed during our Honor Flight writing activity by contacting community members, soliciting donations, and advertising our event.  Each student wrote an introductory letter to a local organization (restaurants, pottery studios, and schools).  The letters, after extensive peer editing, were compiled into a “master letter” in which everyone sent to predetermined organizations.  Letters were sent to every restaurant within 10 miles of our school that had soup or bread on their menu.  Letters were sent to every middle and high school with an art department and pottery studio within 15 miles of our school so as to receive more bowls. Invitations were sent to every alumni family from our school, past and present school board members, past and present staff, and all current families.  Lastly, letters were sent to local religious organizations (not just Jewish) in hopes of increasing our exposure of this event, but also to create a working relationship with other like-minded organizations within our community.


After the letters were sent, we created a call sheet, a list of talking points to use when calling.  We practiced mock phone calls with each other until each student felt comfortable enough calling their designated organization (each student had a call-partner for support).  Most of the students hardly use their phone for the purpose of talking, let alone asking for donations, making this incredibly challenging and stressful.  From their calls, the students received three donations of soup and over a 100 clay bowl donations.  We also coordinated the pick-up process for all donations, which required long-term planning.  


After writing our letters and calling all organizations, we needed to learn how to effectively make clay bowls.  Our goal was to have 500 bowls for sale.  We also wanted all members of our school community to feel involved and have ownership in our event.

Image 6. Photo of 7th grade students creating a practice bowl for Empty Bowls event.


We asked local pottery experts and artists to share with us their prefered techniques and tricks used to make clay bowls.  We then practiced making bowls on our own, mastering techniques that produced the most successful bowl when fired.  We made four bowls apiece, trying different techniques each time and reflecting on our successes and failures so as to improve.  Each student then communicated with each grade level teacher to schedule for their class to come into the art room on three separate occasions (two classes to make two bowls, one class to glaze the bowl).  

Image 7. Photo of teaching staff being taught to make their bowls.


Additionally, each staff member was taught how to make a bowl so as to ensure adult buy-in to our event.  If staff members saw the value in our event, they would most certainly encourage students to participate.  We then coordinated schedules of all classrooms to ensure every class would be allotted enough time to complete their projects.

Image 8. Photo of 7th grade student teaching and assisting another student to create bowls.


We brought classes into the art room and modeled how to properly make bowls.  We then worked one-on-one with each student to hand craft each bowl.  

Image 9. Photo of students rolling clay sheets to be used for making bowls.


In between classes, we rolled out additional sheets of clay to use and fired all bowls that were completed.  This entire process (all clay rolled into sheets, each student making two bowls, each bowl being fired) lasted approximately one month.  Our next step in the process was glazing.

Image 10. Photo of glazed bowl before being fired.


Glazing bowls ranged from simple to elaborate designs requiring extra time.  We needed to manage every student’s artistic needs/desires, as well as ensuring every student completed in time.  We modeled the proper techniques required to ensure success and helped monitor student behavior.  Our students then fired each bowl in the kiln, ensuring each bowl was handled with care.  Meanwhile, our students were balancing our budget (managing our expenditures within our account) and continuing to market the event to local community members.  

Image 11. Photo of student with bowls she designed, sculpted, and glazed.


By the end of this stage of the event, every student in our school made a minimum of two bowls apiece and all staff members made at least one bowl. We had a total of 389 completed bowls (with an additional 100 bowls donated from community members, schools, or local businesses we contacted).


The next step for the Empty Bowls event was to ensure we had soup.  Having never produced soup on a large scale, we had to first select our soups.  We surveyed three local catering companies and inquired as to the most prefered types of soups (soups with the highest consumption rate coupled with the lowest costs) and decided to serve tomato, apple squash, and matzo ball soup.  We then purchased items for the recipes and started cooking.  We had enough soup to serve 500 people.


As our event approached, we continued preparing.  Students practiced simple mathematics for the transactions when people bought bowls and required change (as well as using payment applications on the Ipad), they perfected serving soup quantities, and cleaned all bowls.  Each student mastered one job/skill so as to ensure every student had a mastery of some presentation and hospitality skills and could meaningfully participate.  Additionally, we practiced all job rotations and responsibilities so everyone knew what to do.  One student came up with a brilliant idea.  Since we wanted to raise awareness concerning hunger in Milwaukee, we should increase the visibility of our research findings.  We listed and printed seven different statistics we researched about hunger and placed them inside each bowl.  Raising awareness and impact of hunger in our community is just as important as raising money.


Collaboration – Focused Skill Addressed


On the day of our event, students brought their outfits in early (dresses, shirts and ties, professional attire), and we rehearsed roles and responsibilities once more.

Image 12. Photo of students before Empty Bowls event began and preparation was complete.


Immediately after school, our students were setting up.  All the tables needed to be loaded with the bowls, the soups heated up, the signs hung and made visible, and dinner tables set.  We loaded our pre-made videos, which highlighted interviews with staff and students, as well as showcased all bowls made.

Image 13. Photo of students greeting visitors to our Empty Bowls event.


When the doors opened at 5:00 pm, our first guests arrived.  Our first job rotation, door openers and greeters, met everyone with a smile and welcomed and directed them to our next rotation.  Our second job rotation, the coat checkers, took everyone’s coat and provided our guests with an outline of our events.

Image 14 . Photo of bowls displayed by grade/source.


Additionally, they directed guests into our showcase area, where all bowls had been laid out by grade/source, allowing families to find their own child’s bowls, as well as to purchase bowls that had been donated or made by staff members.  

Image 15. Photo of students at the payment table, accepting both cash and credit payments.


Our next job rotation, the payment table, utilized both cash and credit payments, as well as recording the number of bowls sold and donations received (if someone donated money above the recommended price of the bowl, we are required to provide a receipt because we are a non-profit organization).  We also collected our guests’ names and their address so we were able to send a personalized “Thank You” note after the event.

Image 16. Photo of students serving soups to guests.  Not every guest prefered to use their clay bowl for soup and used paper plates instead.


Next, people took their newly purchased bowls into our cafeteria where our serving staff provided hot soup to fill the bowls.  Guests were served soup and bread.

Image 17. Photo of students cleaning and wrapping bowls before guests leave.


When people finished their soup, we had our last job rotation: cleaning and packaging all bowls.  All bowls had to be hand-washed and were wrapped in newspaper.


At the end of the evening, after every student went through every job rotation and got a chance to eat and spend time with their family and friends (we made sure to include time to break bread with our guests, as is the norm at St. Ben’s), we cleaned up our belongings.  We consolidated all our bowls into one room and packaged up all of our remaining soup.  We sold nearly 200 bowls, raising a grand total $3,010.  As I stressed to the students though, it is not about dollars raised, but lives impacted and good deeds done.  We donated all our remaining soup (in total, 6 gallons of soup) to St. Ben’s.  The soup was used in the next day’s dinner meal, warming the stomachs of 85 Milwaukee residents on one of the coldest nights of the year.  The extra bowls, totaling slightly more than 275, were donated to a local parish, St. Therese Catholic Church in Milwaukee, in which they hosted their own Empty Bowls event later that year, helping to raise an additional $1,380 to fight hunger in Milwaukee.


The money we raised was split evenly, with half being donated to St. Ben’s.  The money we donated to St. Ben’s was enough to pay for meals for five days.  On average, St. Ben’s serves 347 people per day (over 60 of which are children), meaning we provided enough funding for 1,735 meals to be served in Milwaukee to struggling families.  The other half of our revenue was donated to The Gathering.  The money we donated was used to purchase milk for guests for one entire month of meals (24 total meals).  On average, 42 people each day drink milk at The Gathering, meaning we provided over 1,008 glasses of milk to people in need.  Students talked not about the money raised, but about the lives changed and the important legacy of this event.  To witness the students becoming more empathetic and thoughtful and truly making an impact, was amazing.  They had become solutions-oriented when confronting a problem and made a difference.


Final Presentation

The final portion of our project was the presentation focused on effectively communicating our project and learning outcomes to the greater community.  Our mid-year presentation was a culmination of the year’s activities and learning thus far.  Each student was given a list of presentation criteria in which they needed to address, but otherwise were given freedom to write about what they learned.  Utilizing the communication skills practiced throughout our project, each student wrote and revised (individually and in groups) their presentation until the day we presented.  

Image 18. Photo of student giving presentation to members of the community, including a representative from St. Ben’s, who earlier received our donation.


We invited members of our community to witness our learning.  Everyone attending got a glimpse as to what we had been doing for the semester, but more importantly, what we had learned and the skills we developed.

Image 19. Photo of student giving presentation to students of our school.


Every grade in our school was able to witness our presentations and share in our learning journey.  Sharing our lessons allows us to keep our mission alive of making the world a better place because other students and community members saw our impact and in turn, did their part to help the world.  This event also allowed for us to forge stronger bonds within our community, helping those closest to home.


Following our presentations, I asked my students the following question: ‘If you had $1 billion, what would you do with it and why?’  Students wrote personal responses in their writing journal.  Student responses collectively focused on altruistic answers; focusing on the ills of our community.  A true transformation occurred within my students, choosing to focus no longer on the ‘me’ but the ‘we.’


Entrant Bio(s)

Noah Kaufman began teaching at The Milwaukee Jewish Day School during the 2015-2016 school year, the Day School he attended as a child. He currently teaches seventh and eighth grade social studies, as well as co-coordinates our Innovation Wing, which includes our Maker Space, Ideation Studio, and Engineering Lab.