Young Changemakers: Sequoyah Students Engage in Real Life Learning

IHE M.Ed. graduate, Susanna Barkataki, teaches language arts, social studies and history to students in grades 5-8 at Sequoyah School in Pasadena, California. Last fall, as her students were studying issues of land, power, and resistance, they learned about the terrible floods in Pakistan that occurred during the summer of 2010. Students were so passionate about helping people in Pakistan, that they focused their studies on learning more about the people there and how they could help. Susannah talked with us about their project and other ways that students internalize humane education principles into their learning.

IHE: How and why were you drawn to humane education?

I was drawn to humane education in 2006-07 as I was seeking an education that modeled the values it taught. I was very excited to find a program that was truly humane in its implementation, as so much of modern education can be stressful and soul crushing. I was excited to start IHE's program, and my experience was very inspiring as I learned amazing things and had the personal support of the teachers.

IHE: Tell us a little about your work as a specialist at Sequoyah School.

Teaching students how to think critically, to express themselves both logically and creatively, and assist them in figuring out how to take meaningful action in the world are major goals for me as I teach social science and English at Sequoyah School to 10-15-year-olds.

IHE: Tell us about your students' recent exploration of Pakistan and their efforts to help those in need.

We started with studying the themes of Land and Power. As the year was beginning, we were presented with a problem. There were floods in Pakistan and hardly anyone was doing anything to help. So we brought our theme and the problem together to explore in Social Science. Students took their understanding of how to help in Pakistan to a deeper level, as we decided first we needed more background about the culture and society of Pakistan before we could help in a meaningful way. So we explored the current problems, as well as the historical formation of the country, and the government, religion, arts and culture, and social structure of Pakistan.

After gaining reliable information on the floods and what was occurring there we filled out a chart together. Students explored what was happening, what the problems were, who was already helping, and what we could do at Sequoyah School to help.

In our mini-unit on the history and culture of Pakistan, we looked at partition, and explored colonization, Hinduism, and Islam. After learning about the Five Pillars of the major religion in Pakistan, Islam, students had many questions. We watched a fabulous documentary called Inside Mecca, which follows three pilgrims from different cultures on their Hajj, or journey to Mecca. After this film, students had even more questions! So we were lucky to have two guest speakers who are Islamic come to speak to the students and lead a lively discussion.

After such rich learning, we then decided we needed to tie what we had learned together. Students filled out a chart addressing our essential questions and gave examples from our main units of study. They then wrote an essay synthesizing what we learned to make an argument about Land, Power, Sharing and Ownership. They worked together on fleshing out their concrete examples to support the argument they made.

IHE: How have the students reacted?

SB: The student response has been overwhelming. Students decided they needed to take action on their own, since the media was not alerting people to the severity of the flood or the needs of the survivors. The students decided to go classroom to classroom and alert other students about what was happening and ask their families to participate in helping out. Their research led them to discover that kids in Pakistan needed backpacks and other school supplies, so they asked all the families to bring in something to donate. Students also brainstormed a list of what else could be done to help, including (in their own words):

  • Make signs about Pakistan
  • Talk to our families and ask questions
  • Pay attention to the news
  • Research what help we can give
  • Research reliable organizations to donate money to

Students also wrote stories and poetry about the floods and the situation in Pakistan. Here are two of their poems, which they shared with 200 people at an all-school meeting:

Pakistan monsoon
Flood drowning
Military bombing

-5th grader

Destroyed ruined
My home

-6th grader

IHE: What other ways do you integrate humane education principles into students' learning?

Perspective, inquiry, communication, collaboration, application, stewardship, and ownership are all Habits of Mind that we integrate into our hands-on and service learning-based curriculum. At Sequoyah, since we value Perspective as one of our Habits of Mind, we look at problems and issues from as many perspectives as possible. For example, we learned that another reason the world may have been tardy in acting to help flood victims is because Pakistan is viewed as the Muslim world, and therefore made up of people with a different worldview. Our perspective allows us to see that though people may be of a different religion or culture, they are still human beings deserving fulfillment of their basic needs. Our values showed us the human face of the survivors and encouraged us to offer them support in their time of need.

IHE: What evidence do you have that students are internalizing these humane principles?

One of the greatest examples that students are internalizing humane principles was in their choice of performance for the yearly play. They chose to perform a pastiche of "Children of Birmingham" and "The Children of Soweto." The performance was based on the role of children during the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. The students really owned their roles and passionately explained to the audience the importance of standing up for justice against oppression, nonviolently. Students also explained to me at the end of the year how important service learning was. “We really make a difference.” “We need to keep doing this.” “Now I know that I need to stand up to oppression nonviolently, if I can.” were some of their comments. The passion with which they address problems in the community and around the school, such as peer mediation and doing council circles to resolve their problems, demonstrate their commitment to humanity and nonviolence.

IHE: What are your future plans?

SB: This year we'll explore why people want democracy, who it works for, and what sacrifices people are willing to make for it. We will analyze different forms of democracy, as well as the roots of democracy all over the world, such as in Mesopotamia, Greece, India, Turtle Island’s Iroquois Federation, France, England, and the United States. We will also consider countries where democracy is emerging currently and take actions in our local government to give students the experience of the democratic process.

~ Marsha

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