Ask any teacher why he or she teaches and most will not tell you that it is because they have a burning desire to teach algebra or the alphabet or dribbling skills. Don’t get me wrong, most teachers do love the discipline they teach–personally, I think grammar is a whole lot of fun and there is not much I love in my classroom more than a great discussion on a wonderful novel. That being said, when asked I will tell you that, among a host of other things, one of the biggest reasons I teach is because I want to help shape the young people who are our future. For the next several weeks, my blog will focus on concrete ways teachers and mentors can help shape the future through their students.
When you teach about voting to an eighth grader, you are talking about something that is, at best, six years away. Six years is half of the time that student has been alive. I know of no babysitting job that requires a cover letter. And knowing that they might occasionally use basic algebra as an adult really does not make anyone like writing geometry proofs any more or any less than they would have otherwise.
Not that these skills are not important. But if you want to create students who have a passion for making a difference in the world, students who understand the value of civic participation, the impact of powerful prose, and the beauty of geometry, the best way to do it is to get them involved in the world right now. Show them their power, get them involved, help develop minds that think in terms of what I can do and not what others should do.
With this in mind, let’s look at three specifics that students, even very young ones, can do now.
The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
I read the other day that over 500 million straws are thrown away each day in the United States alone. That is enough little plastic tubes to reach around the earth two-and-a-half times or to fill 125 school buses. A Day! Think about in a week or a month or a year. And all these straws are used for maybe five minutes (or even twenty-five minutes) and then are, at best, sent to the landfill where they can take several hundred years to decompose.
But this is something that everyone can easily do something about–even young people. Bring this problem to the attention of your students. This is not some huge and complex situation like the pollution caused by fossil fuels or food shortages in Africa. Students use straws every day–for their milk or juice box, during dinner at the local fast food joint, for their favorite treat at the local coffee shop. But every one of these straws is a choice. Help students brainstorm what they can do to reduce their own use of plastic straws. Using reusable cups and straws, switching to paper straws, even just plain drinking their drink without one are all thing students can do to make a difference right now.
And this is not the only environmental issue that students do something about. Have students research other issues that they can do something about and see results right now. Get them involved and keep track of the changes and the difference they make. Remember, even if your school only has two hundred students and each student only gives up using one straw a day, that is 36,000 less straws in the landfill over the course of the school year.
Letter Writing–Keep It Local
It is a very common school project some time in those middle grades to write letters to your representatives in Congress. And don’t get me wrong, this is a worthwhile activity. But when students do get a response, it is almost always just a form letter written by some staffer (even if it is signed by the Senator) that tells you how much your letter is appreciated, how valuable your opinion is, and then how the Senator has already made up his or her mind about the issue at hand. This is not a particularly satisfying response for an adult who decided to write the letter of his or her own free will and is even less so for the student who didn’t really want to write it in the first place.
Instead, I encourage you to have your students do research on and become familiar with local issues–funding for schools or the park district programs that the students use, fixing sidewalks near their homes or the equipment at the local playground, or if you have older students and depending on your community they might even want to look at things like a city-wide curfew, gang activity, or police-community relations in your town. Then have students write letters to your local government–the mayor, a city alderman, etc.
The responses students get from someone local, especially if you do not live in a large city, are much less likely to be form letters and sometimes they even get a personal response. These letters also have a much better chance of making a difference in policy and circumstances if for no other reason than they have a much better chance of actually being read by the person they are addressed to and not some staff intern. (Additionally, at the local level the mayor attends the local synagogue, sits with all the families at her kid’s soccer games, and gets ice cream at the same stand as everyone else, and it much harder to tell those letter-writing students face-to-face why their park equipment isn’t getting fixed and how thirty-five students in a class is perfectly acceptable than it is to have a staffer send that form letter.)
Volunteering for the Good of Society and Self
Not much else makes an impact on students like volunteering. Not only does it make an immediate difference in a community, but it also helps students see needs that they can help to fill right now. Taking your students to volunteer at a soup kitchen or local food pantry helps students put a human face on local food insecurity. The local animal shelters often need help with the many responsibilities of caring for abandoned animals–showing students how pets are not just status symbols or cute playthings. Establishing and/or working in a community garden–either the kind that provides food to those in need or the kind that is meant to beautify its surroundings–is a longterm project that allows students of a wide variety of ages to see how their sweat and hard work can provide vegetables, fruits, and flowers to many, many people.
And these are just a few. There are so many more volunteer opportunities in your locality if you just look for them. And while volunteering is a great way to make a difference in your community, it is also a really great way to get students involved in that community and give them a feeling of importance and empowerment right now. It makes them understand what it means to help others and be a change agent. And the younger that you give students a taste of that, the earlier you can get these habits ingrained in them as something important, worthwhile and enjoyable, the sooner that you can help them be civicly-minded instead of self-minded, the more likely it is that they will continue on theses paths as they get older.
So shape the future. Help your students find something environmental, something local, something empowering, but most of all, help them find something for the RIGHT NOW!
Have a great day, and…
This Week’s Featured Product
Great for cumulative review at the end of a term or review at the end of a standard unit, this project is a fun way for your students to get ready for exam time. On their own or in small groups, students will create review board games for themselves and their classmates. Versatile and effective, you will use this for many years to come! For more details or to download this product, click here!
This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: How do you encourage your students to make a difference now? How do you encourage them to make a difference in the future?
For the student: How can you make a difference in the lives of those around you? Do you? In what ways?
A Recipe from My Kitchen
Orange-Rhubarb Refrigerator Jam
- 2 1/2 pounds fresh rhubarb, chopped into approximately 1/2 inch piece
- The redder your fresh rhubarb is, the redder your final jam will be. This is strictly a product of the variety of rhubarb you use though–it will not affect flavor of your jam.
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- zest of two oranges
- 5/6 cup of orange juice
- Note: Juice your two oranges after zesting them. If you do not have quite enough juice, it is perfectly acceptable to make up the difference with water.
- Hint: 5/6 cup is 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon and one teaspoon. When I measure this, I just eyeball the halfway point between 2/3 cup and 1 cup on my measuring cup. It does not have to be perfect.
- Pour all ingredients into a heavy sauce pan and mix.
- Place pan over medium heat and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for approximately 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking or scorching. Mixture will begin to thicken.
- Remove from heat and place into heat-safe containers. (This makes 5-6 cups of jam.) Cool. Mixture will continue to thicken as it cools.
- Store covered in the refrigerator or freeze to enjoy in the months to come.