The Power of the 21st Century Classroom

For me, this week is one of the most important weeks in the entire semester of English 10B. The reason?  We begin to delve into a gamut of complicated, yet crucial human rights issues.  To be honest, there is very little that I am more passionate about than social justice.  And from what I’ve seen from this generation, this, for many of my students, is the “stuff” that matters.

Everything about this semester is intricately crafted. As a class we’re going somewhere. I teach the Holocaust for a reason beyond the fact that my students find it interesting.  I teach the Rwandan genocide for reasons other than to show them that genocide has happened, and continues to happen, repeatedly.  The truth is I teach both of these to show my students that the bystander effect is lethal, often on a scale beyond our imagination.

Furthermore, I don’t ask my students to try to decide if they would’ve been counted among the few who helped persecuted people flee or hide. For me that’s the wrong question. It’s too easy to say 15 or 70 years after a genocide that you would have done the right thing.  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re brave.  That we will stand up for what is right, regardless of the cost.

So here’s the question I pose instead.  We have the equivalent of a mass genocide occur every year in our world.  You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.  I speak of those who die needlessly in developing countries, predominantly Africa, every year from diseases that we know how to prevent or treat: malaria, TB, malnutrition, diarrhea. Rather than being hypothetical, the question to my students is: what are you going to do about it?  Now, and for the rest of their lives.  It’s not enough to say I would have; instead we need to say I am.  I love this quote:

“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a
mistake.”

- Meister Eckhart

I think empathy is one of the most important attributes for my students to develop. We need to cultivate in our students from a young age the gift of empathy; the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.  And we need to act.  In some way, every one of us on the globe does.

A week of Immersion in the Real World

Listen to this call from Bono to make our mark on history:

We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies — but will we be that generation? Will we in the West realize our potential or will we sleep in the comfort of our affluence with apathy and indifference murmuring softly in our ears?  Fifteen thousand people dying needlessly every day from AIDS, TB, and malaria.  Mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, nurses, mechanics children.  This is Africa’s crisis.  That it’s not on the nightly news, that we do not treat this as an emergency — that’s our crisis.

Future generations flipping through these pages will know whether we answered the key question.  The evidence will be the world around them.  History will be our judge, but what’s written is up to us.  We can’t say our generation didn’t know how to do it.  We can’t say our generation couldn’t afford it.  And we can’t say our generation didn’t have reason to do it.  It’s up to us.

It’s up to us. This is why school needs to focus on real life.  In the end, it’s not the mark on a standardized test that tells me what’s most important about my student’s learning — it’s the compassion they exhibit for another human being.

So for a week my students are being immersed in countries and situations they’ve never encountered before.

My students have watched Flow and learned about incredibly wealthy companies, from whom we buy our favourite soft drinks,  destroying developing countries to ship bottled water to the wealthiest parts of the world.  Furthermore, they learn bottled water has few regulations required of it, and often your tap water is healthier and has far stricter regulations regarding the level of contaminants.

Through our connected classroom, they’ve been inside a chinese factory to see the deplorable conditions that most of our jeans are made in.  Consequently, they’ve come away with a better understanding of the subjugation of workers, the poverty and hopelessness that many young girls who work in these factories in China find themselves in, with little opportunity for a better life.

And the past two days they’ve learned that Wal-mart isn’t quite the company they thought it was.  They’ve discovered that those low prices come at a high expense, often to the people who can least afford to pay it.  I think for many this has been the most shocking revelation of all.  For some, it has changed their shopping habits. And tomorrow, we’ll begin to learn about the Price of Sugar.

For many of my students, this is an eye-opening week. They’ve had no idea. How could they? It’s not something we often talk about in our current culture.  But we should be talking about it. And this is the unit that I feel the most responsibility for teaching. As gently and lovingly as possible, revealing to them that the world isn’t quite as honest and kind as they think it is.

It’s not about guilt. It’s about being educated and making educated choices. However, I think sometimes as teachers we draw the line at educating our students about justice issues, and forgo the most powerful and important step in preparing them and requiring them to do something to make a difference.

Over the next six weeks, my students and I will be looking at justice.  What is justice?  What does that word mean? And for whom?  And is our definition somehow skewed as North Americans who have more than our fair share of the resources?

As part of our study, my students will have to research their own justice issue.  Something they are passionate about. Then they need to create an action plan, use technology and social media to inform the public about it, and connect with an organization that makes a difference in that area. And most importantly, DO something.

I plan to introduce my students to Kiva & the wonder of microfinance.  If you’re unfamiliar with microfinance or Kiva, this TED talk from one of the organizations founders reveals the power of small amounts of money to radically change the life of people around the world.

The internet has radically changed the way, and the pace with which, we can change the world.  I believe the young people in our millions of classrooms around the world have the potential to make a huge contribution to change, starting $25 at a time.

During the same six-week period, we’re going to be studying Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird concurrently. I’m going to require my students to make the connections between these two works written centuries apart, in very different times and settings. Oddly, even those I’ve taught these two texts in the same semester for six years, I didn’t see the powerful connections until one frosty evening in March, in the midst of my students Holocaust project — some of the deepest learning about injustice that’s ever taken place in my classroom.

I’ve never attempted to do this before.  And yet, somehow, interweaving among these three activities, seems like a powerful trio.  Throughout all of this, we’ll be creating a justice wiki that allows my students to collaborate between the texts and what they’ve been learning about.

When I mentioned to my class that we’d be studying these two works at the same time, one of my students looked at me and said, “what do those two have in common?”   My reply, “you figure it out.”

The truth is — going into this, I have no idea how it’s going to work out.  Will two texts be too much?  Will they be able to keep track of it?  And in grade 10?

As a teacher, I want to require more of my students than what is in the standard curriculum.   So for the next 6 weeks, we’ll try to figure out what justice means, for us and the world, while trying to fight for it at the same time.

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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6 Responses to The Power of the 21st Century Classroom

  1. Kay Endriss says:

    Go, Shelley, Go.
    I’m rooting for you.

  2. Dr Arun Jee says:

    Being an educator from India I observe that many of the ideas that have been expressed here are similar to those of ours. Thank u very much indeed.

  3. John Thomas says:

    This is inspiring and important. I’m looking forward to hearing about you and your students’ experience and thoughts at the end of the six weeks. You’re doing something that matters.

  4. Jill says:

    I JUST discovered your blog today, and frankly, I’m ecstatic!

  5. Lindy Buckley says:

    I love the way you are integrating your literature studies with your social study of justice. The inquiry is all the richer for it. I am interested to know how it all worked.

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