Teaching the future leaders

I was honoured this afternoon to speak to, in my opinion, a potential future world leader. This person is one of the most compassionate, level headed, empathetic, responsible and confident people I have met. This person is, of course, one of my students – an 11 year old boy.

We are currently working on a unit of inquiry that has focussed on leadership and in particular what it takes to be an effective leader. The summative assessment task for this unit gives the students the choice to take leadership over something that they are passionate about – essentially to put the knowledge of leadership skills in to practice.

This particular student is of Cambodian origin and he has decided that he wants to learn more about the lives of kids in his home country. Our school is heavily involved in supporting an organisation called the People’s Improvement Organisation which has set up a school located on a rubbish tip. It’s purpose is to provide free education to kids who otherwise would be sorting rubbish for anything that can be salvaged, recycled or sold. So with some guidance this boy has decided that he wants to go and visit the school and work with the kids there. What courage from an 11 year old!

I suggested that he needs to send an email to PIO to sort out some details. This afternoon I was helping him to explain a little bit about why he wants to do this and this is when I was almost brought to tears with the thoughtful, genuine responses he gave to the simple question of ‘Why do you want to do this?’. Here are the notes I took as he spoke with me:

  • I am Cambodian
  • I want to learn more about Cambodia
  • I want to take responsibility to help my country and it’s people
  • I respect Cambodia
  • Just because I study overseas doesn’t mean I only care about myself – I do care about the education of others too
  • I want to experience how others live – how others fight to live
  • I want to try new things

I sincerely hope this action is followed through, because if it does, I think it will be one of the most important, life-changing events that this boy will ever go through.

This is why I teach!

Developing genuine empathy in students

True action can only stem from genuine empathy. While this is not a groundbreaking idea, the thought of how to create this genuine empathy isone I have been thinking about since a recent workshop that I attended (discussed here). For example, we can’t have students experience the poverty within Indian slums by dumping students in the middle of the slum and saying, “Survive. I’ll see you in a week”. The workshop mentioned in my previous blog post develops the idea that teachers need to involve students in simulations as a way to develop empathy beyond a surface level.

At the moment, my students are undertaking a unit of inquiry focussed on fresh water andrelated issues. I wanted students to really appreciate the value of water and respect the fact that, while water comes as easily as turning on the tap for us, it isn’t this easy for many millions around the world. To do this, I lead my class and another grade 5 class through the simulation that I called ‘water balloon farmers’.The idea is that students take on the role of farming families in remote India. They need to fetch water from a distant source, farm their crop (which is represented by filling water balloons using a water bottle with a small hole in the cap), keep themselves clean, go to school, etc. At the end of each month (represented in blocks of 10 minutes) the students need to pay their rent, have some drinking and cooking water set aside, etc. If they didn’t meet their needs, consequences applied.

The first month (10 mins) of the simulation went well, but the kids were still in make believe mode. There were no real connection being made, no real empathy. This was expected. By the second month however, students were stealing, pushing, shoving, kicking over buckets of water… their behaviour had changed significantly! They had taken on the role of farmers fighting for survival. The third month continued on this path with some families having been kicked off their farm for not paying rent.

The most important, and eye opening stage of this lesson for me was the debriefing that followed. Reflections from students were amazing!

I think we did this activity to help us understand that:

“Water is important to every living thing”

“Farming is very hard and that water has to be there to live”

“We are very lucky to have what we have now and we should appreciate it.”

The thing that made me think or surprised me the most was:

“That everything started to be real…”

“Seeing how much water we need to live because in here you don’t notice because it’s easy-peasy to get water”

“During this activity the people got really involved they all wanted money not to live but to survive. They did everything they can do, even steal.”

“It was that it felt weirdly real for the rush to get money. It also felt like we weren’t in school anymore.”