As adults and educators it is our responsibility to prepare young people for the lives they will be living, not the lives we lived. Now, more than ever, this must be shared work. We must both listen and tell the truth. I began my teaching career as a History teacher in one of the most academic schools in the world. Twenty years on, and after clear direction and endorsement from my students, I now teach what we call ‘reality 101’ (affectionately known as ‘wake up and smell the coffee’). Smart young people from all over the world are sick of feeling stupid: As one Senior already into Yale put it to me nearly ten years ago, “I don’t even know if there are roads in Africa.”
I believe that the best education is a fusion of academic and experiential learning. Every child should leave school with the knowledge, understanding, experience and skills to move through the world with dignity. They should be able to think and write critically and analytically. They should have experience of problem-identifying and problem-solving, of teamwork and collaboration, of in-depth, individual research projects, of learning from and teaching others and of the excitement of being with experts. Every child should be constantly challenged to draw on their experience and their imagination and to take risks, both intellectually and personally. It’s only then that they will develop the passion and purpose that will make them like themselves, and their lives (and that will get them into a really great college.)
At Taft I wrote the Global Scholars curriculum to raise the level of global understanding for all students, and to create a dedicated track for those who chose it. Nobody could graduate as a Global Scholar without proven and sustained engagement in either the local or global community. At ASL I created the experiential Community Opportunities program: we are now working to match this with both required and elective academic courses. When international human rights law becomes the Afghan refugee in the school next door, then head and heart work together with unprecedented passion. There is no more powerful medium for teaching the necessary content and skills than the urgent issues of the day, and no more successful approach than partnership and collaboration with others from the wider community. Then perhaps, we will all be able to say with the Roman writer Terence: nothing human is foreign to me.
The greatest gift we can give our students is a high bar. Many of my elective courses are based on the work of Nobel Laureates such as Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. We examine international human rights law, consult Amnesty International reports and frequently use the readings I used when studying for my masters degree. Students do not complain; in fact I often get reports that this knowledge is being applied and shared in other classes. We had a joke in my last elective class: every time I referenced someone or something they hadn’t heard of, they would turn to one another, roll their eyes, hit their heads and groan, “there’s so much we don’t know!”
- A Global Vision for Taft in the 21st Century (pdf)
- ‘From Classroom to Community’ (pdf). A profile of service learning electives in the Taft Bulletin (Winter 2009)
- The American School in London Community Opportunities Program (pdf)