Friday, March 13, 2015

Passport to the World

In September, my 11th graders finished our first unit of the year on community.  We discussed the factors that break community down and the role that love can play in building community up.  In our final discussion, I encouraged the class to consider what they might be able to do as a community to serve the world.  I offered a few examples of service activities that classes had done in years past, but told them that it was ultimately their own decision.

The StuCo representatives organized a class meeting during lunch on the first of October to gauge interest in doing something as a class.  The turnout was incredible--more than 40 of the 47 members of the class attended the meeting and those who were not there had prior lunch commitments.  I sat in on that meeting as a fly-on-the-wall.

The feeling at that meeting was abundantly clear: everyone was in favor of doing something.  I encouraged them to decide on a charity to support before starting to plan an event.  Several ideas were considered, among them raising awareness and funds for Ebola research.  The Juniors knew that Ebola was an issue that was not only affecting so many people, but also that it was largely misunderstood by the United States media, which was contributing to Stateside panic (such is the advantage of observing U.S. media from overseas!  A little distance helps to see the truth of a situation).  

As luck would have it, the high school principal knew someone working with the SIM Organization, a branch of which is dedicated to fighting Ebola, and connected the students with that contact. 

Later in October, the students decided that they wanted to host an international festival--a practice common in Japanese schools, but which had not been done in recent memory at CAJ.  They brainstormed the types of games, food, activities and performances that could be featured. The class divided into committees and set about planning. 

One of the greatest obstacles they encountered was setting the date.  As the leaders looked through the calendar, it became clear that there were relatively few open Fridays upon which the event could be done and that even the open Fridays came between other major events.  In mid-January, the Juniors settled on March 12, a Thursday, with the festival lasting from 4:00-6:00.

With the date set, the committees doubled down on their efforts and the event began to take shape.  In February, the Junior class had a tremendous opportunity: through their contact at SIM, they were able to connect with Dr. Rick Sacra, a Christian Ebola doctor who had worked at Elwa Hospital in Liberia, had gotten sick with Ebola in the fall and then survived to return to his work.  The class leaders arranged a Skype interview with Dr. Sacra on February 25.  They set up the projector in the classroom and filmed the hour-long interview.  Dr. Sacra was helpful, gentle and very informative and the students came away, in the words of one girl, "star-struck".  

In the weeks leading up to the event, the committees went above and beyond: the arts committee and decorations committee spent hours after school putting together signs and planning how they would transform the cafeteria into an international carnival.  The food committee spent hours in the Home Ec room, preparing food to be baked ahead of time.  The advertising committee created signs and posters, received permission to hang them up not only around campus but also around Higashi Kurume, and also received permission to pass out tracts at the station.  The activities committee planned out unique and interesting games for children to play, both indoors and outdoors.  The performance committee lined up a solid variety of acts that would reflect the diversity of our school community.

When the day finally arrived, the committees were ready to go: they knew what needed doing and who was responsible for each facet of the set-up, and the execution.  I released my 3rd-4th period Humanities class to assist with the set-up, recognizing that there would be at least a few students who would be too nervous or anxious to make much progress on their unit essay.  At 2:00, the whole class met for final instructions and then went their separate ways to finish the preparations.  All 47 members had something to do: everyone was working hard.  

By 4:00, a long line had formed, winding back past the auditorium and the event began.  It was well-attended, and the Juniors (all wearing either traditional clothes from various countries, or sports gear from their home country) gave the two-hour festival their all.

The final tally of the funds they raised is not yet complete, but every indication says that the class exceeded their goal of ¥150,000.  

Parents, staff, and peers alike conveyed their amazement and appreciation for what the class of 2016 put together.  This will not be an event soon forgotten!

It was my exquisite privilege to observe the Juniors at every stage of this process.  This was not a requirement; no grade or school credit would be given for this.  Yet it was an extension of our class discussions from that very first unit, and an application of the theme I hold to be central to my 11th grade classes: Becoming People of Justice.  Yesterday, and in the six months leading up, the 11th graders invested in something much bigger than themselves, coming together as a class community with common purpose, sacrificing both time and energy, and seeking opportunities to serve and bless not only the local community, but the world at large.  They may well write about this experience in their final essays at the end of the year.  I hope they do.  But even for those who struggle on that last assignment, for those who always struggle to formulate and articulate their thoughts, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that they lived out our theme firsthand.  I sincerely wish such moments were easier to recreate.  This year, I merely set the possibility before the students and they ran with it.  Next year, with this charity event still fresh in their memories, the class of 2017 will undoubtedly feel pressured or overwhelmed if I treat this in any way like an expectation.  Service, and by that same token, a genuine pursuit of justice, must come from the heart and not from the burden of tradition or expectation.  

The best I can do is to instill within my students, this year, next year and all the years yet to come, a deep desire to pursue justice.  Frustrating, for a teacher who wishes he could just plug "Junior service project" into his curriculum map, but oh, so crucial for a teacher who hopes for his students to leave his classroom with a heart to serve.

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