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Student Centered, Global Service Learning

Today, Linda Kantor Swerdlow, author of the new book, Global Activism in an American School from Empathy to Action, shares an example of how students can take action and use their own agency to make a difference in the world. 

By guest blogger Linda Kantor Swerdlow

I first met seventh grade English teacher Ron Adams and two of his students, Kristin and Tom, from Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts when they presented at a two-day seminar on Global Child Labor for educators, that included noble prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi and the top curriculum writers in the field. The middle school students captured our hearts by their passionate appeal to end child labor. They had a strong sense of social justice—something unusual for most middle school students.

A History of Global Activism
Ron shared with me the story of global activism at his school. When twelve-year-old Iqbal Masih, a former bonded child laborer turned anti child labor activist from Pakistan, came to Boston in 1994 to receive Reebok's Youth in Action Award, he asked to meet youth his own age. Reebok award organizers selected Broad Meadows Middle School because of its human rights curriculum and history of student activism.

Iqbal's inspirational visit and untimely murder five months later on his return to Pakistan inspired the Broad Meadows students to take action and build a school in his memory. The middle school students started a grassroots activist movement called The Kid's Campaign to Build a School for Iqbal. The campaign's success led to Broad Meadow's selection as a pilot school for Operation Day's Work-USA (ODW-USA), an American adaptation of Norway's popular youth global social action program. ODW has been operating as a highly successful afterschool program at Broad Meadows since 1996.

A Student-Centered Program
Linda Swerdlow.jpegOperation Day's Work-USA is a student-centered, global education afterschool program based on the idea of youth helping youth. Its aim is to help participants develop global understanding and democratic practice. Each year, all seven of the member middle and high schools solicit proposals from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide services for youth in the developing world. US students research the issues and learn how to assess the proposals. After considerable discussion and debate, each school votes and the students develop a year-long educational and funding campaign for the program that receives the most votes. The campaign ends with the students either working for a day to make a contribution of that day's pay or by developing a community service project and finding sponsors who pledge to contribute for each hour of community service the students perform.

At Broad Meadows, the educational campaign has a dual focus: self-education and community education. Each year before the proposals arrive, Ron provides incoming students with a general understanding of global inequality through a series of hands-on simulations and research activities. The returning students take on the role of mentor and teaching assistants.

Once the proposals have been evaluated and the vote is in, the students need to develop education programs to accompany their fundraising efforts in both the school and the community. They must develop an understanding of the country, the culture(s) of its inhabitants, and the problem the NGO is attempting to address. Over the years, the middle school students have worked to fund a wide range of programs. They have partnered with Goodweave to provide education and healthcare for rescued child laborers in Nepal and India; Partners in Health to provide vaccinations and scholarships for children in rural Haiti; and Selamta Family Project to build group homes from AIDs orphans in Ethiopia. The list goes on and on.

Global Partnerships
One of the unique aspects of ODW is the educational role played by the NGO partners. Students learn about the organization's activities through in-person and Skype meetings with agency officials. They have the opportunity to speak with their peers overseas who are beneficiaries of these programs.

The fundraising and educational campaigns are student-run according to student-generated rules that enforce democratic practice. After the proposals are in, Ron gradually transfers the leadership roles to the veterans—eighth graders who have been in the program for one or two years. As program facilitator, he encourages democratic practice and decision-making but will jump in to assist when needed, especially with tasks that require academic guidance.

Outcomes for Students
The student-run nature of the program allows students to experiment with adult work roles and exposes them to career options they might not otherwise have known about. They also develop a wide range of real-world skills, including research, writing, public speaking, critical thinking, ability to work collaboratively, fundraising, publicity, and the ability to facilitate meetings and make professional presentations.

Most importantly, participation in ODW enhances students' awareness and understanding of the global community. This is essential if we want American students to solve complex global problems and to succeed in the increasingly globalized economy of the 21st century.

As Ron Adams notes, "Each campaign is an attempt to provide students with real-world experiences, meaningful to the students and to apply skills learned in class. Ironically, application, a true sense of learning is not measured by high stakes state testing nor by teacher evaluations. Still it is the right thing to do. As teachers, we need to always save room for student voice."

If you are a middle or high school teacher interested in starting an ODW chapter at your school, please contact: [email protected].

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image courtesy of Ron Adams.

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