Educating the Heart--Creating Open Minds Through Service and Leadership

When our dynamic world is in flux, it is easy to allow challenges to overwhelm us, causing us to turn away from finding solutions. It is also easy to allow opposing views over social and economic issues to divide us.

What happens to children growing up in this increasingly complex world? A look at recent accounts of intolerance and even violence in our schools demonstrates the trickle-down impact of these stresses on young people. Yet as teachers, we combat these trends. Opening hearts and minds is what we are called to do. We shed light on darkness and cannot turn away. We must build our students’ skills so that they can move into the future with humility, optimism, and the ability to problem-solve.

Transformation in Action

In 2009, I began with colleagues at The Prairie School in Racine, Wisconsin, a program we called C.L.A.S.S. (Character, Leadership, Accountability, Service, and Sustainability) to explicitly address the skills needed to create more sustainable relationships socially, economically, and ecologically. I wanted to help children move from acceptance of problems to living lives of action through service. More than 100 students have participated in C.L.A.S.S. over the years, many more than once, and have experienced the transformative power of service to others.

Thus, the purpose of C.L.A.S.S. is to create opportunities for children to connect to the issues that concern them in positive ways and to build skills needed to address the unknown. It guides them to step outside their own lives and consider not only what it might be like to live in another’s shoes but to respond to that person’s life in a way that serves their needs. It also builds the reflective skills necessary to develop critical thinking. Student directed, C.L.A.S.S. has connected with students in Afghanistan, with students at a local public school, with immigrant workers, and with people experiencing homelessness.

This year, we looked to build a more explicit understanding of how leaders intentionally develop the social skills needed to persevere and meet their goals. The students’ goal was to build a stronger relationship with the residents of our local homeless shelter. We volunteered, visited, raised money, and last year incorporated the cooking and serving of a meal. The students, however, realized that if they were to form a relationship with the people living there, as our mission stated, we needed to spend more time together in a meaningful way. I began to look for leadership and personal development materials that would facilitate the mindset necessary for building relationships between the students and the homeless shelter residents. The Good Project’s work on Good Work was my starting point.

Responsibility, Character, Values

Using the Concentric Circles of Responsibility as a pre-assessment, twenty six students ages 10 to18 submitted their reflection as an application and formed small multi-age cohorts to learn about the crisis of homelessness in our city and country. Everyone’s starting point was different. Some students were new to this experience and listed only “family, friends, and school” in their rings, while others saw their relationship to others as one of charitable service.

Pre-assessment: Concentric Circles of Responsibility by The Good Project

Each monthly C.L.A.S.S. day consisted of two parts: at school and at the shelter. At school, we studied aspects of the situation and learned about our own character, values, and the importance good work, and at the shelter we put our learning into action. The reflection that followed each meeting allowed students to synthesize their learning with their experience, connecting the mind and the heart. “Today helped me build character and enhance my own story by being able to talk and relate to people I never would have had the chance to meet. It helped me improve my leadership by taking care of and advising younger students,” reflected one Junior student.

At the first C.L.A.S.S. meeting, we assessed and analyzed our own character strengths. We formed teams based on those strengths and headed off the shelter. Students were excited, but also uncertain. They wanted to be engaged, but didn’t know how to initiate. They looked to me for direction and stood separated from the residents. I wanted them to find direction from inside themselves.

Excellence, Ethics, and Engagement

My response was to explore with the students how to connect values and actions. What does it mean to engage? How do our values help us make ethical decisions? We used one C.L.A.S.S. session to explore how others pursued good work, and students overcame their uncertainties. We went back to the shelter and put our individually-stated goals into action. What I saw was transformation. Coats were off, names learned, games played, and crafts made. More so, plans were initiated by the students for our future meetings.

During the winter months, we joined in with the rest of our community to raise funds for the shelter by participating in Empty Bowls, a grassroots effort that raises both money and awareness in the fight to end hunger. Students also worked to bring to fruition their desire to once again serve dinner at the shelter. They raised funds for the ingredients, contacted local businesses for donations, and organized work teams for cooking and making decorations. Because our Little Free Library was in need of books, requests were sent out for donations. (Little Free Library is a book exchange project that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering literacy with free books. C.L.A.S.S. sponsors and maintains two libraries in our community.) By lending our support for these community programs, more and more the students took charge of their work.

The Family Dinner

I had concerns about returning to the shelter to serve dinner. Would we “serve” and the shelter residents “eat” as had been done in the past? Learning needed to accompany our serving. Sitting down to eat together is an intimate and vulnerable act. If we really valued the relationship we had developed with the residents, it was necessary that we take a risk and open not just our minds but also our hearts to the people at the shelter.

I turned to The Family Dinner Project for inspiration. Before heading into the kitchen, students shared their own meal-time experiences and worked together to study the research around the benefits of eating dinner together.

They learned and reported back to each other about the effects of sharing a meal on our social and emotional well-being. We considered the implications that these facts might have for our friends living in the shelter and made a commitment to ourselves and each other to create a family-centered meal. This meal was different from the previous year; students stepped out of their comfort zone, sat down, and ate and talked with the families. The day ended with laughter, Snap-chat exchanges, baby smiles, hugs, and full bellies.

Our final meetings for this school year will bring us full circle as we look back on our Concentric Circles of Responsibility, reflect on our own development, and make plans for next year. It is my hope that the C.L.A.S.S. experiences will have expanded these rings and created children with a better understanding of how to live lives based on values, reflection, and good work that builds character. There are many difficulties that face us in this world, but the skills C.L.A.S.S. students learn and practice help them to address these difficulties with open minds and hearts.

This article was written for Harvard University's The Good Project

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"Each of us must become impassioned, finding meaning and self-fulfillment in our own life's journey." Alexandra Stoddard

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