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Turning Respect into Loving Action

December, 2010
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This year is extraordinary in that the main religions of the world celebrate their important feasts all within the same three months. Islam has just finished the Pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. The Hindus have their Festival of Light, Deepavali and Jews and Christians respectively celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. Next month it will be Asia’s turn to bring in the Lunar New Year with family, food and firecrackers. All of these celebrations involve giving, sharing and caring. What are our schools doing to foster the same humanistic sentiments?

Most societies and their education systems recognize the need to influence the way children feel about others. A version of the ancient “Golden Rule” promotes respect for others and is taught in varying versions in homes all over the world.  But in an increasingly globalized world with its finite resources and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, even in developed nations, is respect enough? Respect implies tolerance at a safe distance. It is passive acceptance of others and their way of life with no emotional involvement or responsibility.

Many school curricula go a step beyond respect and promote caring. It is one of the attributes of the Learner profile of the International Baccalaureate Program. Caring creates an emotional connection between people but caring without action is meaningless and does nothing to improve the world. Plus, it can’t be measured.

Emotions run in trends just like fashion. Caring was systemic in the flower power of the 60’s and seventies when everyone ‘loved” each other. That was until the hippies moved into the board rooms of Silicon Valley and Wall Street and discovered all the toys money could buy. Then caring turned to greed and greed to dishonesty and then to the financial meltdown. “Puff The Magic Dragon” was evicted by the “Material Girl”. Other people lost their jobs and homes and the rich cashed in on the defaulting mortgage market while the small investors lost their savings and their pensions. To protect themselves from being accused of churning out financial Frankensteins, the MBA programs quickly threw together courses with titles such as ‘Ethical Hostile Takeovers and How to Manage Public Opinion.’  Ministries of Education and curriculum developers started asking what could be structured into primary and secondary school activities that could shift the focus from goods to goodness; goodness that could be measurable. The idea of “community service” was resurrected and has become a focus in many schools.

Community Service, one of the core elements of the IBDP, implies that students translate their respect and caring into deeds that impact others in a positive way.  It means thinking about our world and how we can make it a little better. It can also mean talking with and touching the lives of others.

When I was a child “Community Service” was about nuns collecting 10 cents on First Fridays to “buy” Chinese babies and save them from hell. Today there aren’t many nuns left, you can’t buy anything with a dime and the Chinese own the U.S. Treasury! Things have changed. One of the biggest and most beneficial changes is that it is no longer the teachers who are running the charity show.

What used to be a safe and sanitized act of transferring money from a parent’s purse to a charity has become a learning and character building activity. More and more curriculums have units entitled “Agents of Change”, “You And Your world” or “Community, Action and Service”. Students are asked to close their computers, switch off their mp3-players and look around themselves. International schools are encouraging their students in elementary school through to high school to look outside the relative comfort of their school and home and identify social problems that they might be able to do something about.  Identifying a manageable problem in itself is a lesson in Social Geography.

Then comes the learning of problem solving techniques, including identification of specific and achievable objectives, producing possible solutions, choosing the solution most likely to succeed within the material and time parameters and then organization skills , team building skills,  resource and time management, control, measurement and correction. These processes help hone the same skills and thinking processes required in business, government or art; but the goal is to help others.

This month at Suzhou Singapore International School, fourth graders working on a unit called “Agents of Change” heard a teacher talk about a club at the school called Kids 4 Kids in which students initiate projects that help other children. The club had already raised enough money through dances, bake sales and after school movies to have the eyes of over 700 children at a local migrant school examined and the club paid for glasses for 107 sight-impaired children.  When the fourth grades heard about this they asked themselves how they could be agents of change. One of the boys had been to Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border and had visited a shelter for refugee children from Burma. With the support of his teacher Ms. Sue Badawi, he convinced his fellow fourth graders they could do something to help. The need was particularly great due to the shelling of the town across the river from the shelter during the recent elections in Burma. The courtyard of the shelter was packed with over 150 people who only had the clothes on their backs. The class decided to try a first initiative with a bake sale and within three weeks of hearing about the idea of actually doing something the kids have raised 3600 RMB that was sent to the shelter.

Besides obviously helping the needy and the bonus of new skills acquired by the initiators, students who do good for others begin to realize and appreciate that people have been taking care of them all their lives and that it requires commitment and hard work.  They also understand that as they get older they inherit some of the responsibility for taking care of others and they learn how to do it.  Student-initiated community service builds the bridge of humanity from the privileged world of the expat to the world of deprivation of the less fortunate. It helps the givers to appreciate all they have and to see the less fortunate as real people with whom they can share a meal, a yoyo and a laugh. These kinds of experiences should be part of the reason parents take their family out of the comfort zone of their home country. It is a win-win situation in which everyone is enriched.    

Student-initiated and managed community service is a process of empowerment in which young people take the lead to improve the lives of others. This must give them a more profound feeling than reaching the next level in a computerized killing game. As the theme of “helping to create a better world” becomes the focus of education then we are sowing the seed for a fairer, safer, happier world as our children become masters of it.  There is no reason why the spirit of Christmas couldn’t be around every day of the year.

By Patrick Donahue


You can contact the author at: Sebalex.x@gmail.com

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