Thursday, August 20, 2015

Agents of Change and the Greatest Stories Never Told

It was a Tuesday, and I can still remember it being the kind of spring day that tricks you into thinking that summer is right around the corner.  As a student, it was the kind of day that made it hard to focus in  on anything in a classroom.  The sun is shining outside and the creeping sensation of summer approaching inspires daydreaming more than it motivates academic engagement.

Like most teachers, I fear these days, not because I don't like the warming weather, but because I am at a point in the year where I am freaking out about all of the things that I haven't covered, yet.  With the end of the year fast approaching, I'm also expecting a barrage of "extras" that will steal away even more of my precious time with the kiddos.  I can't lose this day to the sunshine... I've got to do something dynamic and engaging, something that the kids will dive into and forget about the birdsong drifting in our open windows.

So I plan this lesson around a news article discussing the "modern serfdom of American agriculture".  We've been working hard in school gardens, and shining a light into the dark places of American food culture, so I think this is the conversation that will really help solidify some of the concepts we've been building up towards.  In my mind, I envision the emotional and intellectual process my students will go through - shock, then anger- and from this anger will come a boiling resolve to do something about the injustice they are learning about.

Instead, this is what I get.

"This stuff always pisses me off!" 
"It's just so depressing."  
"It makes it seem like the world is going to end and we are all powerless to do anything about it!"

Now, this isn't the first time I've heard this.  Usually, I elicit these types of responses when I present the "Big Problems" facing our world today.  It doesn't have to be the growing discrepancy in wealth in America; it could just as easily be climate change, cutting down rainforests, persistent racism and social inequity... take your pick.  The big idea here is that these are exactly the challenges which we should be preparing our students to tackle once they get into the "real world".  Instead, this is often the response I am met with.

This is scary talk!  We have created a world (and an education system) where our youth feel disempowered to tackle the problems of their generation... of any generation.  Through the constant barrage of negativity, violence, and cynicism expressed in our popular media, to the lack of relevance in many school curriculums, students not only feel bored by school, they feel apathetic about the future of our world.  Our youth have become numb to the need for real "heroes- the type of heroes that will shape the future world in which we will all live.

So, earlier this year, when I was approached by the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes about a potential fellowship, my curiosity was piqued.  The "Center" helps teachers cultivate a curriculum in which students are challenged and inspired to uncover the greatest stories of heroism that we've never heard.  Sparked by a high school research project that unearthed the moving story of a woman who saved thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust, the idea is that students will look for the most inspiring, powerful, and moving stories in history that never reached textbooks, or newspaper articles, or any other medium of popular culture.

And, to be quite honest, the most important thing for many of our youth might just be the exposure to stories of real heroes- the kind that don't don the cover of a magazine or show up on a Wheaties box. We need the stories of everyday people, like you and me, who have done something extraordinary to create a better world.  In a day and age where the world is in need of young, inspired agents of change, what better way to convey the message that one person truly can make a difference.