Standing before a classroom of your fellow sixth-graders to present your poster project is one thing. Standing before an audience of adults is  entirely different — especially when that audience includes not only adults you know, like teachers and school administrators, but also adults who've never met, like a a school board member and a college professor.

That was the challenge faced by 18 sixth-graders at Bettendorf Middle School on Friday, as three groups from Stephany Maxwell's language arts class presented inspirational posters they designed to a jury who would select the winning poster — the one that will be enlarged as a billboard and hung outside the school gymnasium.

The stakes, and the nerves, ran high just a few minutes before presentation time. Seated in the back of the classroom, some students used these last few minutes to run through their lines one last time.

Others brushed up on their stage presence, literally: hair pick in hand, 12-year-old Jacob Willems styled the hair of his friend and fellow group member Isaac Foster.

"He needs a little help on this," Willems said.

After the first group presented their poster — which read "Live to Motivate, Live to Inspire, Live to Lead" in red, white, and blue type superimposed on top of an American flag — the jury asked some questions.

When asked what advice they would give to next year's sixth-graders about the project, Riley Freking replied, "Do not give up, because this project was—"

"—frustrating!" interjected her team member Bryce Duke.

The jury broke out laughing, but Duke wasn't kidding: each poster had gone through multiple revisions after groups consulted with Katie Whiteman, a former Bettendorf Middle School student who works as a graphic designer at an advertising agency in Virginia.

To make those revisions, though, the students were left to their own devices, literally: each student is assigned a Chromebook laptop, which they used to work on their posters with Google Drawings, a free web-based program that enabled team all team member to open and edit their designs simultaneously.

"The students basically self-taught themselves," explained Maxwell, who has now led the billboard project for five years. "They went through the Google Drawing tutorial, they learned how to import images, how to change backgrounds, how to insert words."

Students also learned about intellectual property, as they were required to ensure that each slogan and image they used was free of copyright restrictions.

After two more groups presented their posters, the jury deliberated using a set of four criteria — inspiration, universal appeal, creativity and aesthetics.

Consensus was arrived at quickly: the second poster presented, which featured the silhouette of two hands clasped together — perhaps in prayer, perhaps in meditation — on top of a fall-colored background with the words "Be the POSITIVE that stops the negative" superimposed over it.

"The message this sends me is that this is a way to combat negativity, which I think a lot of kids struggle with," said John Byrne, a professor of marketing at St. Ambrose University. "You know, whether you're being bullied or whether you're seeing someone do something wrong.

This message—overpowering negativity with positivity, I think this was pretty profound," he added.

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