When I am lesson planning, I think of the Peanuts character Peppermint Patty. I visualize her struggling to focus while her teacher rambles on about some meaningless task that has no connection to her life. I can hear her teacher drone like a cacophonous trombone “wuh wah wah wah,” while Peppermint Patty dozes off in the corner, drool cascading down her mouth.
I try to be mindful of the Peppermint Patties in my classes who find school one monotonous chore after another. Alfie Kohn argues, “no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.” I want to be intentional in my instruction. When lesson planning I wonder: How will my assignment make real connections to the lives of my students?
On the other hand, I also resist being the bleeding heart teacher savior portrayed in films like Dangerous Minds. Y’know, the erudite, avuncular, pseudo-radical, quasi-psychologist teacher clad in an Asian floral dress and Birkenstocks, or a corduroy sport coat and a checkered bow tie, that didactically assigns service-learning projects around liberal causes like global warming or homelessness. In my experience, students find this forced liberalism just as wearying as kill-and-drill worksheets.
This internal debate about making meaning in my instruction while not imposing my personal agenda on my students was in my mind when I attended the “Sandy Hook to Seattle – Building the Compassionate Schools Movement” conference in mid-August. The conference focused on finding avenues to teach kids compassion and empathy in the school curriculum, so they feel invested in both their education and their community. I attended hoping to learn ways to create meaningful connections between the Common Core and the real world.
One session that resonated with me was on classroom philanthropy. Elementary teacher Peter Hubbard and Director of Programs at the philanthropic organization ‘Tis Best Karli Anne Christiansen, discussed their collaboration through the Compassionate Schools Network. ‘Tis Best created a “DiscoverGiving Classroom Giving Kit” that guided kids to become philanthropic through their interests, rather than coercing them to do good through incentives.
Christiansen explained neuroscience research has revealed that when humans give because they feel passionate about a cause, it activates the pleasure centers of their brain. Conversely, when people give to earn an incentive like a pizza party for the class who collects the most cans during a food drive, we focus on the incentive, not the cause. She added, besides the neurological and physiological benefits of philanthropy, it also connects directly to the Common Core. Citing an article from University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, “…social-emotional skills are implicitly embedded in the [Common Core] Standards…for students to successfully to meet the Standards, they must possess social-emotional skills.” In other words, teaching kids compassion helps them gain the social-emotional skills embedded in the Common Core, that, in turn, helps them to meet the Common Core Standards.
Besides helping his students become civically engaged, Hubbard said his partnership with ‘Tis Best taught his students to become holistic thinkers. Classroom philanthropy guided his students to become “integrated learners” that must consider aspects of Math, Science, English, and Social Studies in their thinking, versus being pigeon-holed as “disembodied learners” that focus on one discipline in a vacuum.
The driving force in the Classroom Giving Kit is the Charity Gift Card. Each student is given a $1 gift card they can donate to the charity of their choice. The students collectively brainstorm causes they are passionate about, research organizations that they could donate money to, and then compose letters persuading their peers and their school community to support their cause.
My mind immediately thought about argumentative writing in the Common Core. ELA Writing Standard 9-10 b states students will: “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.” Ostensibly, students must demonstrate both sides of a debate, and persuade an audience why their claim is the strongest. Juniors at my school write an argumentative research essay on a controversial topic related to career or a cause they are passionate about as a graduation requirement. The essay is part of my district’s Culminating Project that is a series of tasks to prepare kids for their pathway after high school. Students approach the essay in one of two-ways: a hoop they have to go through to graduate, or another arduous task they are destined to fail.
I envision the Charity Gift Card to be the bridge to inspire my students to become integrated learners, persuasive writers, and engaged citizens.
The documentary Paper Clips flashed in my brain as a perfect example. Paper Clips tells the inspiring story about a middle school in rural Tennessee that sought to collect 6 million paper clips to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. Eventually, they received over 30 million donations from across the globe, including an authentic Nazi-era cattle car that the school turned into a Holocaust museum.
I asked Christiansen if she had done any work collaborating with secondary students. She admitted she hadn’t. We exchanged business cards and promised to keep in touch. Both of us left motivated and inspired.
I am hoping next school year, $1 will wake Peppermint Patty up from her school-imposed stupor. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. But at least she may be motivated to attend my class, just to learn about the power of paper clips.