21st Century Life Long Learning ~ Context and Backstories

How do we as a society begin to dissolve socially constructed labels and collective nouns, such as the poor and the rich? When, how and why does the learning process take place that provides context and backstories of the lives of fellow human beings when we dare to say, “There for the grace of God . . . ” ?
When, how and why are awareness and empathy taught, modeled and learned? That is, with no strings attached.

Of course the answers point to family, school and the daily social-cultural curriculum that impacts us on a daily basis. As an educator for some 45 years in public and private schools, I tend to place some emphasis on our home away from home – a place called school.

I speak from multiple perspectives and experiences as an immigrant juggling two languages and cultures. I attended urban, public and parochial schools and as an educator taught in urban, suburban public schools, as well as independent schools. In all, I had the opportunity to work with ages ranging from middle school to college graduate students.

There were surely differences and yet they had much in common. As a young student, and eventually as a novice educator, I noticed that middle schools and high schools would pause for roughly two weeks before Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas with the Student Council hosting competition drives, gathering cans of food, clothing, toys and cash. It was a default reaction before the holidays by the school, as if it was now time to become aware – react to a segment of society that between holidays did not seem to be relevant and visible.

Huge, decorated, cardboard canisters would line school halls, filled to the brim with donated items. Teachers, students and parents would create baskets for “those people on the other side of town who needed our help.” The packages at some point would be picked up and delivered.

Being part of the process, I questioned whether the entire event was actually also for those who would be giving rather than only receiving. It was a time when the school as a community could feel good about doing something good and right. And yes, such moments needed to be embraced and celebrated.

But something was missing – something having to do with the authenticity of meaning and purpose. After the holiday, the school returned to ‘normal’ as if poverty had been solved. As one colleague shared, “Phew, thank goodness that’s over. I can now get back to teaching Math!

Please, please do not misunderstand my intent . . . stay with me. I fully support and encourage community service ventures. Children need to know and learn about service to others. Certainly this was always preached in home by my parents, who had little to share but made sure they did.

As a student and as a novice teacher, I enjoyed doing my part and participated. But upon becoming a principal, my perspective and power of influence changed. I began by asking the Student Council to not think in terms of two weeks of altruism, but months – from September to June.

I had learned that students will make every effort to meet a challenge against conventional thinking and odds. So I threw down the gauntlet that we needed to do better! We needed to address the reasons, the context and backstories of those families, who for most of the year, remained invisible and voiceless to us. The year long project could become part of our school curriculum.

Making donations several times a year, of canned food, gloves, scarves, coats, new, yes new mountain bikes, and corporate checks, was not atypical for our students and their parents. This was a suburban school of affluent families – some homes had elevators – five car garages – families living “fail-safe” lives.

All that youngsters had to do was ask dad or mom to cough up some ready made altruism and the community service bins would be full within days. Competition between classes was marketed throughout the school. The competition became a motivation for moms and dads to cough up a little more.

But to deal with context and backstories was different. We needed to first pause and realize what our blessings were and think about if we simply took them for granted. With that in mind, we could then begin to learn about others across town . . . for that matter . . . all over the state . . . Those communities that we simply drive by on I-75, on our way up north. Were there other ways we as a community could help? What were the root causes of their circumstances? Beyond donations, as citizens with new awareness, what could we do to alleviate the cycle of poverty?

We also became aware of the stereotyping of poverty. Bulletin boards began to change as to language, context and awareness.

Let’s make sure that we don’t apply a “color” to the needy. Let’s make sure that the Student Council has a school assembly on socio-economic reasons regarding poverty in America. Let’s do some critical data-based-knowledge analysis. Let’s do some research on why some children in America in the 21st Century, in one of the richest countries in the world, still go to bed hungry.

Yes, that raw data was now going home and being shared with family. One of the best ways to provide family awareness is to turn the children loose with critical thinking skills, knowledge and a genuine cause.

Let’s get the Parents Association to do their fair share in providing some education. Let’s invite speakers who do non-profit – pro-bono work on a daily basis. Let’s connect with schools and have exchanges, so that students can see and listen to each other and share their community issues and advocacies. How and why do the issues differ – how are they the same? How can they work collaboratively to solve problems?

Let’s ask our Social Studies teachers to unearth some history – some social context regarding economic disparity. Let’s have the English, Art and Music Departments deal with the subject matter through writing, art, dance, drama and song. Let’s have our athletic teams and coaches come up with unique community service projects per team – Yeah! – wear those uniforms with added pride!

Let’s get the Mathematics and Science departments to do their share and crunch some data, numbers and findings on national nutrition and diseases that impact all economic levels and constituencies. Why are some zip codes more at risk regarding heart disease and diabetes? What are we doing as a society – as citizens – to confront such trends? What professions are addressing these social issues? How are politicians promoting policies that enhance the quality of life for all?

What about inviting alumni who can answer our questions and who are doing the work?

Here is a crazy idea! How about Community Awareness and Service as a 4 year High School Graduating Requirement . . . and 4 years at the college level? Isn’t that what “hands-on experiential learning” is all about?

Yes, let’s make sure that before Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas we know the reasons why . . . approach altruism with knowledge, historical context, backstories, social awareness and critical analysis. Isn’t this a major reason why we attend school? To become astute, intelligent and responsible citizens?

As an alum shared upon visiting the school with an audience of future alums,

“I live in New York now, and as I pass a homeless person huddled in a corner of a corner – with a cup in hand . . . before reaching into my pocket . . . I pause and reflect . . . knowing that it’s not about me feeling good . . . but coming to terms with the reasons why he or she is huddled in that corner and that I need to do my part with my power of influence as a citizen and human being so that such conditions are addressed.”

Oh yes, the Seniors most often won the two weeks of ‘Giving’ contest . . . but all four grades knew the reasons why throughout the school year . . . they still do.

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