Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Service Learning: Making Peacemaking Real

Spring means that Peace Games classes shift from teaching the skills of peacemaking to helping students put peacemaking into action. Peacemaker Projects are service learning projects that are developed and implemented by the students, with some help and guidance from their teachers. After four lessons to explore the concept of service and community, students begin the process of figuring out who to help and how. Here, then, is the story of one project.

I. Who Needs Help?

When we ask the second graders if there are people in their community that need, somewhat ambiguously, "help," we expect the usual cascade of well-meaning but somewhat recycled cliches (the poor, the homeless, maybe a police officer or fire fighter; all of them good and worthwhile suggestions). Instead, the class zeroes in on a pretty simple concept: people who feel sad.

Well, that could mean a lot of people, at least some of the time. Who are some people who might feel sad? we ask. One girl raises her hand and says, "Sick children?"

Indeed, we agreed children who are sick might feel sad. And then another child volunteers that she had a cousin who was sick and that, actually, her cousin had been in the hospital. It was a comment that helped her make a personal connection to the conversation - and it seemed to generate a more generalized empathy. After all, we all know what it's like not to feel well, even if we haven't stayed in a hospital.

Hmmm, so what could we do, we ask, to help a sick child in the hospital feel better?

"Give them medicine?" one boy says. "Or chicken soup," another adds. "Give them my toys?" offers a boy sitting at the front. "Play video games!" calls another, seemingly spurred by the reference to toys, which generates a lot of suggestions that we go play all kinds games with them. "Let them come to my house?" one girl suggests, earnestly but with a little hesitation since she hasn't cleared this with her mother. "Visit them," says a boy, with a tone of obviousness, surprised that he hasn't thought of this, "and bring them flowers," he adds. At this, another girl suggests bringing balloons, which gets a lot of support and nods of agreement. Side conversations start up about how nice it is to get balloons and about a time that they'd received balloons.

The more we talk, the more the suggestions come. All of them are written down. Eventually, the conversation starts to resemble one that we had earlier in the year, when we'd talked about how to support a friend when they can see that they're either upset or angry. That conversation had centered a lot on how you can make someone smile or laugh, even when they might not feel like it. We make an oblique reference to this, and sure enough someone offers, "Make them laugh! Tell them jokes!" It's added to the list.

Once we have a long list, we say that we should try to figure out what might be possible. We point out that we probably can't give medicine to the children in the hospital - the nurses and doctors probably want to do this, we say, and get agreement. We also say that it might be hard to go visit, especially if some children are really sick, but we don't know for sure. We rephrase some of the other suggestions: collecting and giving toys to a hospital, balloons (of course), making cards.

All of these are good, but what about the joke-telling suggestion. I'm drawn to it and its possibilities, but stuck on the fact that it would be hard to write a stand-up routine and bring it to a pediatric ward. If we can't go to them, how could we send the jokes in our place?

And then it comes to me, a joke book. It might be too much, but I suggest it, and it gets enough agreement to be added.

And with that, we take the list and summarize what we know about our Peacemaker Project so far: we are going to do something to help children in the hospital, children who are sick and who might feel sad. We don't know how yet, but we have a lot of good ideas. And next week, we'll try to find one that works.

We end the class, of course, with a game. be continued.
See other posts in this series: