An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.
My students made that happen, and they did so much more.
As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes. Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.
But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …
And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.
In fact the seed for this project was planted by a statement of its impossibility. As we were wrapping up our second quarter study of racial bias, one component of our Weathering the Storm cycle, Tilesha, made this comment during our final seminar discussion:
“Ms. Taylor, it’s great and all that we’re learning and talking about this stuff, and you tell us that we can do something about it, but that’s not really true. People only change if they want to change, and those people, those people who are really racist, well, they don’t want to change, so nothing we can do will really make a difference.”
What I wanted to do was yell. “No! You can’t believe that! We can’t have spent all these weeks talking about the darkness of racism and have left you believing that change isn’t possible!”
But instead, I remained calm and launched into what I’m certain was a far too esoteric summary of Change Innovation Theory, and how what we were doing in our classrooms was the work of innovators and early adopters.
Then the bell rang, and students adjourned to winter break. I’m not at all sure that they listened to a single word I said.
During third quarter, in alignment with our Enlightenment theme, we shifted our focus from racial bias to exploring issues of gender and gender bias.
Tilesha’s comment continued to haunt me.
Every chance I got, I reminded my students that they are Innovators and Early Adopters, and that they can change the world. Their eye rolls were nearly audible.
I needed to prove to them that they really could effect change, but how?!
Of course, I had it all wrong. I didn’t need to prove it to them, they needed to prove it to themselves. I didn’t yet realize this, but Serendipity took over, and showed me the way.
Our fourth quarter cycle theme was Change, and yet even when I took on the task of planning our kick-off, I had yet to see that the connection was right before my eyes.
Typically our Change cycle theme focuses on the personal changes our students are experiencing. They are growing up, moving on to the next grade level, yada, yada. This is a lovely message, and I was prepared to roll it out this way again.
I was scheduled to kick off our fourth quarter cycle theme in mid-march. Just 5 days before this was to take place, I came across this video. In it, strong data is cited about the lack of powerful role models for girls in children’s literature. In response, two mothers in Sweden wrote a book called, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls; 100 Tales to Dream Big. The book contains real-life stories of 100 remarkable women, and is described as, “true fairy tales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing.”
This video started my mind swirling. It was focused on concerns about gender issues, but it wasn’t hopeless. It didn’t just point out a problem. It noted a problem and then documented a solution. My students could do something like this. They, too, could create change.
Just two days later, I had the privilege of seeing Nicholas Kristof give the keynote address at the American Montessori Society Conference. He said this:
“There is no silver bullet, but there is a lot of silver buckshot – there are a lot of little things we can do that can make a difference.”
“The needs of the world today are so vast that anything we do is just a drop in a bucket, and individually, we can’t make a meaningful difference.
But we can put drops in the bucket; I’m a believer in the drops in the bucket.
Drops in the bucket is how you fill buckets!”
How much more did Serendipity need to hit me upside the head before I understood what to do? I had to help my students put drops in the bucket, and see that, together, all those drops could make a difference.
That night, I sent this message to my team:
“I have been working on a Change cycle kick-off, and here’s the idea I have come up with. It’s so much more than a kick-off; it will take up lots of time.
We’ve been exploring really powerful social issues, which has been great, but what does it matter if we don’t DO anything about it?!
And I keep telling them that they can change the world, but I’m not telling them how or even providing guidance.
So what if we just do it?! What if we just let them choose an issue, develop a way to create change related to it, and then help them to do it?
I love this idea, but now you can tell me how entirely crazy I am.”
I know two things about my team: they dream at least as big as I do, and their need for a structured plan is as least as strong as mine.
So, I was not terribly surprised when I got near-identical responses from each of them saying, “You’re not crazy. It sounds like really good work. But while I understand the big picture, I’m not understanding the parts – like how will it work day to day? It makes me nervous because I don’t understand what it is we will be doing.”
The reality was that I didn’t know how it would work day to day either, and I, too, didn’t understand what it was that we would be doing. That was the terrifying part. My plan was designed such that students would select the issue, determine how to tackle it, and then complete the work to do it. We wouldn’t know what it was that we would be doing day-to-day until we were actually doing it.
This was so student-centered that we couldn’t “begin with the end in mind,” or even develop a big-picture plan or a structure to guide us in advance.
This was not how any of us like to do things, and the thought of it made all three of us very anxious, but we took a collective deep breath, and agreed to go for it.
We first invited students to generate a list of the societal issues that we had learned about this year.
This is the list they came up with. It’s quite a list!
What we’ve talked about…
- Gender Bias
- Racial Bias
- Racial injustice
- Boys are thought to be better at math
- Boys aren’t expected to show emotion
- Unequal Pay
- Police brutality
- Gender based violence
- Girls not in school
- Racial Profiling
- Human Trafficking
- Early and Forced Marriage
- Drug Trade
- Gay Rights/ LGBTQ issues
- Modern Day Slavery
- Diabetes and Obesity
- Natural Disasters
- Forced Labor
- Women’s March
- Domestic Abuse
- Displaced People
- Education (Lack of education around the world)
- Global Health Care
We gave students ten minutes of silent reflection to think about and record which issues were most important to them and why. We then asked them to discuss their selections and reasoning with the rest of their table group.
Once this process was complete, it was time to vote. We made it a blind vote to eliminate any possibility of embarrassment, peer pressure, or other external influences.
The top two vote getters were “gender bias” and “allowing boys to show feelings.” It was particularly touching to look around the room and see that many of our coolest, toughest, most athletic boys cast votes prioritizing being able to openly show their emotions.
We decided that these two top issues were related to each other through the lens of gender roles and how they hinder all of us, and we felt that we could address them simultaneously.
This thought was reinforced by this powerful TED talk on the potential damage, for both girls and boys, caused by gender bias and gender roles, which I shared with students after, yet again, just randomly stumbling across it. Serendipity strikes once more!
So we had identified an issue to tackle; now what were we going to do about it?
Once again, we turned to the students, and let them brainstorm a list of options. This is what they came up with.
Ways to Create Change. . .
- Go to elementary schools to promote change
- Put flyers on lockers around the school
- Hold a mini-march
- Run a carnival to raise money for girls to go to school
- Host a social event to test awareness of perspectives
- Create a drive for school supplies in developing countries
- Research gender bias and inequality and present findings via social media
- Conduct community service where boys and girls do equal work
- Design a skit or video to raise awareness about gender bias
- Make informational labels to put on popular items in the cafeteria
- Write a short story/children’s book with a female protagonist
- Make yard signs to increase awareness
- Design a t-shirt with a hashtag or some other type of message
Then it was time to vote again. I’m pretty sure that as students cast ballots, all three of us were each offering up a secret prayer that sounded like, “Don’t pick carnival. Please don’t pick carnival. Whatever you do, just please don’t pick a carnival.”
Oh, Serendipity, why must you fail me now?
Not only did they pick a carnival, they also chose to do locker flyers and to design a t-shirt.
What were we to do? Fifty students were staring at us expectantly. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Well, you picked three things, there are three of us, I guess you’re on.”
And so it began.
Students researched gender related statistics for our building-wide morning announcements, revealing disturbing data like:
In 2015 there were only 21 female heads of state in the entire world
4 out of 5 victims of human trafficking are female
62 million girls are denied an education all over the world.
They looked up popular slogans and used them to design their own flyers, which they then decorated and posted on every, single locker throughout the school.
They created a beautiful original t-shirt design that addressed issues of gender equality, global gender concerns, and gender fluidity.
And they planned and carried out a carnival fund-raiser, which they held on the last day of school as a culminating activity for the entire building.
Together, the money raised from the t-shirt sales and the carnival was nearly $1,000 — enough to send sixteen girls to school for a year.
My students knew that, globally, 62 million school-age girls are denied an education, and they knew, from videos like this one, of the lasting, long-term, multi-generational and societal positive impacts that educating girls can have.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a highly-ranked non-profit organization. One of their donation options is the opportunity to send a girl in Africa or the Middle East to school for a year at a cost of $58 per girl. When my students learned about this program, they jumped on it immediately.
Never in my wildest imaginings did I think something like this was a possibility. When I originally conceived of this project, I thought that maybe they’d do locker flyers or write a short story. Raising enough money for even one girl to go to school seemed like a long shot.
But my students dreamed far bigger than I did. They believed in themselves far more than I did. They made an impact far more significant than anything I would have planned for them.
If I had begun with the end in mind, I would have hindered their progress.
Giving up control in the classroom is a frightening thing to do, and yet it can yield tremendous results. To be clear, this isn’t the same as an unplanned free for all. While my teaching partners and I weren’t able to draft a unit plan for this work, and while sometimes we had to plan on the fly based on how things were evolving in the moment, we developed expectations, structures, and time frames as we went.
The entire experience was quite a roller coaster ride, and there were some moments where we really questioned whether the pieces would ultimately come together.
But they did, and the result was glorious. This was like nothing I have ever done before. I learned a lot about giving up control in the classroom and trusting my students.
My students also learned a lot. They learned about serious societal concerns. They learned about how to communicate a message. They learned about designing a logo. They learned about organizing an event. They learned about fundraising and profit margins. They learned about working together. They learned about advocating for themselves and others. And they learned that they could make a difference.
Although none of this will ever be on any standardized test (nor should it be), this very well may have been the most important learning students did all year.
This project took a leap of faith, but it was so worth the risk. The possibility of engaging in work like this isn’t unique to my classroom, or to Montessori schools, or even to secondary programs. I believe it has value for any classroom.
Here is what I learned to make the process easier.
- Expose students to real-world issues. Adolescents in particular are hungry for this, as they strive to define themselves and identify their values.
- Eke out time. It will never appear on its own. We cobbled small bits and pieces of available time together in the spring before state testing, and then used larger, more consistent blocks of time afterward.
- If possible, find colleagues to help you. I am blessed with two incredibly dedicated teaching partners. I knew that no matter what happened, we’d be in it together, and one way or another, we’d find our way through.
- Trust in your students. They will be invested in what they design on their own. They will rise to the occasion.
- And, perhaps most importantly, as Barb Scholtz always says (and I seem to always doubt!) “Trust the process.”