This world is far more complex than the one we faced as children. The ecological crisis, the polarizing views of society, technological advancements, economic upheaval--all these present a world that is in dynamic flux. Whether we are looking at the ecology of the planet or our personal lifestyle choices, the preeminent motif facing us is that of the sustainability of our world. To navigate effectively in this new world, children need a new kind of skill-set to understand, at a deep level, the cultures and perspectives of people very unlike themselves, people that are too easily Othered. Much has been said about the need for a whole-systems approach not only to sustainability, but to the educational models that press to address it. What is perhaps unique here is the pursuit of sustainability as a whole being: ecologically, economically, and socially and to the education of the whole child.
In wanting to create small communities of engaged, compassionate, service-oriented students, and assist them in developing a global perspective in a way that is safe, yet open-minded and transformative, we developed interdivisional and trans-disciplinary program called C.L.A.S.S. (Character, Leadership, Accountability, Sustainability, Service). This program serves multiple existing curricular goals, advances the mission of character education, and promotes key aspects of 21st century skills and sustainability education. C.L.A.S.S. is based on the premise that education happens best when metaphorical 12x16 spaces (physical and mental) are created or emerge on their own. When students and teachers of diverse backgrounds, abilities, and interests come together (or find themselves) on “rafts” where it is possible for them to unlearn and relearn, to create their own realities and help recreate the realities of others--when they come together, paradigms shift and change happens. That shift is the first step in moving to more sustainable relationships--be it socially, economically, or ecologically. It transgresses acceptance, moving the participants to relationships of service and transformation.
In Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the young narrator Huck discovers that the river liberates him from the constraints of the land-dwellers, represented by his strict aunt, his abusive father, and community after community of hypocrisy, violence, and chaos. On his raft, whose dimensions are 12 feet by 16 feet, he and a runaway slave named Jim create their own world, one in which white and black, youth and experience, faith and superstition, racism and acceptance coincide and coexist. Ultimately, Huck decides that if being on this 12x16 raft with Jim is going to get him sent to hell, as his culture dictates: "All right, then, I'll go to hell." He deconstructs his learned racism and undergoes a paradigm shift.
That's 192 square feet of change.
We believe that education happens best when metaphorical 12x16 spaces (physical and mental) are created or emerge on their own. When students and teachers of diverse backgrounds and abilities and interests come together (or find themselves) on “rafts” where it is possible for them to unlearn and relearn, to create their own realities and help recreate the realities of others--when they come together, transformation occurs.
C.L.A.S.S. was formed in 2010 and works to transcend the classroom experience with its unique and transformative approach. It was not a fully idealized program when we began and has developed as the years have progressed. Following the lead and interests of the students involved means letting go of what and how and even who... It means embracing and being transformed by the daily choices that the students continue to make.
About four years ago, after attending an ISACS conference on sustainability, some colleagues and I began discussing the possibilities of implementing the innovative ideas presented at the conference. Much of the conversations revolved around how impossible this would be. There were presentations on oversea trips, global connections, sustainable giving projects--much of which seemed beyond our small school community.
One huge idea, however, stuck in my head. Guy Kawasaki was the keynote speaker for the close-of-day, and he was enchanting--makes sense the title of his book. His keynote was simple, memorable, and I wrote down as much as I could as he spoke. The most poignant piece of advice that he offered was to not let the naysayers win.
But sometimes we need to be reminded of that. And it was this that propelled me forward. If the other teachers could offer programs and activities that connected their students globally, why couldn’t we? And so we began.
A year of planning went into what would become C.L.A.S.S., and in that year we spent a lot of time assessing what it was we wanted to address. In fact, the name for the program popped up one evening as we met to define who we were and what we wanted to say. We wanted the program to be cross-divisional because we had seen the value of offering these kinds of opportunities to develop Character and Leadership. We knew that we needed to bring together a diverse body of students, under a common experience, and deepen their understanding through multiple lenses. The program is student led, packed with reflection, and extra-curricular, as this places an emphasis on learning to be more Accountable. That Service would be a component and that Sustainability would play a key role in the life of the program was a given, how that would come to be was a question.
For two years, Primary, Middle, and Upper school students from our school began the year with a study of Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea. They examined the nature of the hero’s journey, explored what it meant to be an agent for change, and eventually delved into the critique of Mortenson’s story and practices. From this, students began to address problems in their school and community all the while exploring and deepening their understanding of this “other” culture in Afghanistan. We connected ourselves with Children’s Cultural Connection, and it was in this video conversation that we truly began to understand the power of direct communication with the “other”. We had to help make this grow.
This following year, we strengthened our connection with Afghanistan by participating in the Global Cultural Exchange Programs as it allowed for direct conversation. Via Ning and Skype students learned about themselves and others and C.L.A.S.S. sends its message of transformation further afield. In the spring of the year, Engaging Educators featured our story in their story: An Epic Global Adventure and Skype in the Midst of War (see previous blog post) as we prepared for and held our first Skype with students in Jalalabad.
At home, C.L.A.S.S. students worked to transform their school community garden, raise funds for the redevelopment of a Our School at Blair Grocery in New Orleans, and to strengthen community outreach to the poor in their city by volunteering and participating in community events. All service projects were created by the students and stem from their understanding of their world. As teachers, we have merely guided and cleared the way for projects to happen. As students reflect on their progress--the successes and failures, they have chosen to set forth the next steps.
C.L.A.S.S. has entered its third year with students in Afghanistan and continues its efforts here at home to sustain their world economically, ecologically, and culturally. This year, students have decided to explore the difficulties of illiteracy in our lives, in our community, both local and global. We have partnered with a local elementary school, expanding our raft and the diversity of our group as we learn together what it means to be literate, discover the issues surrounding illiteracy in our community, and make plans to step forward and do our part in addressing helping to secure this human right. We’re not sure where exactly the program will go since student reflection and assessment shape the path, but we do know how.
If you would like to connect with us, share your story of transformation, or offer ideas as to how we can deepen our students' experiences, please leave your comment or connect with us via email.
"Example isn't another way to teach, it is the only way to teach." - Albert Einstein