Saturday, April 16, 2011

Better than This?

            This past Friday I witnessed education at its best. At St. John’s the middle school took part in a special ceremony called Whistleblowers for Peace. It was the culmination of several months work by a group of ten students, who had been inspired by a speaker from Falling Whistles whom they had heard at an SMU TedX for Kids event. Falling Whistles is an organization whose mission is to end the long, violent war in Congo.
            First, a bit about the ceremony. We held it in our chapel. It began with an African hymn, after which I gave brief remarks about service and responsibility to others. We had more hymns, a Bible reading, and some prayers. Yves Muya, a young man whose family fled the war and lived in a refugee camp for over a year, spoke to the students. He emphasized the importance of having dreams and never letting go of them. He urged, “Even when it seems you can’t dream any more, then dream some more.” This warm, exuberant young man embodies that idea, as he came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship despite the ordeals of his youth. Now he is an aspiring documentarian. Then the students presented Yves with a beautiful montage of St. John’s images and announced they had raised $5200 for Falling Whistles. Several of the students who worked on the project shared their thoughts—through original poems, poignant passages from memoirs, and personal reflections.  A priest then blessed the whistles. Then, behind two student playing African drums, everyone walked in absolute silence from the chapel to the field, where they were directed to form two circles, one inside the other and facing each other. On a signal, they all blew their whistles. It was an amazingly powerful occasion, particularly because of the solemnity displayed by the students.
            What makes this even more wonderful, from an educator’s perspective, is that the entire thing was student driven. From the moment they heard that speaker, they determined to do something. Over the past few months they have planned, organized, educated, marketed, raised the money, coordinated the ceremony—they did it all. They formed a collaborative team that tapped into the respective strengths of each member. Through the process they learned a great deal about themselves, how to get things done, and saw real purpose to what they’ve learning. Their words resonated with a beauty and passion far beyond typical school writings. The students’ words and actions illustrated how they have internalized the larger, more eternal life lessons of a St. John’s education. In the meantime, they also lifted us as a community, reminding us of ideals and possibilities, in a sense challenging their peers to determine how they are going to create a better world. The other students' support of the effort and comportment during the ceremony shows they are hearing that message. It fills one with great hope.
            Their faculty sponsors also deserve special mention for how they worked with these students. Rather than jump in and try to control, they encouraged and guided; they facilitated and suggested. At no point did the students have to cede ownership of the project. In some ways the teachers learned as much as the students, as they ended up embracing the cause themselves. It was a wonderful example of the traditional roles morphing as they all learned together.
            Recently I wrote a bit about the idea of capstone learning experiences—those culminating projects that pull together many aspects of a student’s education. Think about what happened in particular case. These students confronted the world in a powerful way. In doing so they faced a meaningful problem and asked important questions. They reflected in a way that enabled them to develop and to become part of the solution. In that process they gained new knowledge and understandings while honing multiple skills. They shared their growth for the betterment of others near and far. What more could we ask of education that that?

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