Saturday, March 7, 2009

classroom notes: community service

When I assigned my 155 first-year students in human rights to do ten hours of community service teaching human rights in local secondary schools, I broke the rules.

In an ideal situation, teachers give a small number of students an ‘option’ to do what is known as service learning. Advance contact with the learning site supervisors, periodic contact during the service, and plenty of time for ‘reflective’ writing by the students: that’s the norm.

But in a country which has been through hell – ten years of civil war that saw massive rape, amputations, civilian massacres, child soldiers, forced marriages, you are not working in a ‘norm'. Also, the students in their required personal statements to me about their life in war and peace (and educational and employment goals) said they wanted to be “human rights activists.” They wanted to make a difference in their own country.

So I gave them a chance.

Despite a flurry of doubts and questions from students, I sent them out to teach human rights. They had to find a school, get permission, prepare their presentations without guidance, and teach basic points about human rights. “When do we go,” some asked? “Whenever you’ve learned enough in our class to go teach it.”

The results: amazing. With just a letter of introduction in hand from our department (which served as a signed verification later from principals that they had done the teaching), they located schools, overcame nervousness, and taught in front of classes as large as 100. Even my blind student completed the assignment. And many, many students said they really loved the opportunity to help their country.

Here are some of the comments from their reports:

(from Mohamed Kabba, who is blind): “…all the children gave one way or the other meaningful contributions…I learned that children of developing African countries should be given utmost attention as they are the future leaders for tomorrow.”

(from Margaret Murray, who also had students complete a questionnaire on human rights knowledge): “…The welcoming was not very good because the children thought I was too young to teach them. The classroom was full of tension but when I started relaxing, they relaxed too. My lesson started with the definition of Child Trafficking…The class was turning into fun, because I have the attention of each and every one of my students…what I found out is this: that most people do not know about child trafficking, which is one serious crime in the whole world.”

(from Sallieu Sesay) “…It was quite challenging, as that was my first time to stand in front of a large class that is over hundred pupils to educate about the doctrine of human rights…”

(from Fatmata A. Alghali), who focused on the right of education for children): “I started and asked them if they have ever heard about “Human Rights” some of them said yes and others say no.” [She went on to engage students in discussions in which emphasis was put on the importance of educating girls and not just boys.]

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