Graduation by Demonstration is a school assignment on steroids.
Educators Michael Gohde and Molly Van Cleave dreamed up this novel project over three years ago as a means to exercise all the skills in an 8th grader’s backpack.
Middle school lays the foundation for high school. Kids learn to write. Really write. They learn to dig in, conduct serious research to support their ideas. They tap into facts and use logic. They’re challenged by teachers and critiqued by their peers. Their minds open to new ideas. They become more effective communicators with key skills that will last a lifetime.
Amman’s American Community School is a melting pot of culture, religion, income and family make-up. The student body is a rich soup made up one part Americans; two parts Jordanians with a US connection; and a heaping spoonful of English-speaking Europeans, Asians, Africans and South/Central Americans with Jordan-employed parents. The faculty is equally diverse.
Turning middle-school scholars into global action figures
It started as a way to test the kids’ ability to “explain something with evidence”, said Gohde. So began Graduation by Demonstration, or GBD, a project that lives a full school year. It’s a simple recipe: consider your world, pick a global injustice, write an essay and deliver its content in a compelling speech to your peers.
Tall order for a 13 year old, but why stop there? The teachers upped the stakes. Develop a plan to solve that problem. Evolving further, it soon became: do the plan. Incite support. Take measurable action. “We built the program on the fly”, said Gohde, “It was a way to conduct a ‘real learning’ experience.”
Since the students self-select their topics, they become naturally engaged, willingly step up to the challenge. Eyeball-rolling their way through rough drafts and multiple rewrites, hours of research and source identification, kids were hooked by the assignment’s “here and now” aspect.
Fine-tuning was constant. Original ideas were discarded or refined. Skill-balancing was paramount: lousy speakers might prove strong writers, and vice versa. In the end, everyone moved up a notch, becoming more proficient across the board.
Students held “sharing sessions” with younger kids. They delivered their speeches to lower grades in the run-up to the Big Presentation day, when they pitched their projects to parents and a teacher review panel. They’re assessed on content, delivery and professional appearance. Imagine how formidable they’ll be as adults with these early public speaking gigs under their belts.
Gohde highlights an unanticipated benefit to his program. Teachers spot holes in earlier education, and work to adjust curriculum for the lower grades so the next wave is better equipped to tackle the project’s demands. Resultantly, GBD projects get more scholarly, more creative, and more ambitious.
This year’s themes were as varied as the students. Some selected topics close to their roots: the Greek economic crisis and West Bank politics, Cambodian landmines and post traumatic stress disorder amongst Gaza’s children. Others chose social hotpoints like child marriage and Mexican gangs. Human health and environmental issues were provocative: the West Bank water crisis; deforestation; and the dangers of shisha.
Pushed to make a difference, they created websites and blogs, and tapped into social networking (FB, Twitter) , all second nature to this digital generation. Students gauged measurable impacts: money raised, website hits, actions catalyzed.
Amanda tackled ocean pollution; she earned a junior diving certificate in order to participate in a Red Sea coral reef clean-up organized by PADI Dive Center. She wrote letters to two Jordanian Queens seeking connection to groups working to ban plastic bags and mandate stricter recycling laws.
Lara chose an affliction particularly close to this age group; and created an excellent website to tackle issues surrounding anorexia.
Alaa’ targeted cruelty to animals: her ice pop fundraiser earned 100 Jordanian dinar, which she donated to the Humane Shelter for Animal Welfare. After meeting with the shelter’s founder, Alaa’ is now a volunteer worker.
I taped a few of Martin’s anti-sheesa flyers up at work. They featured links to his project website. A young co-worker told me Martin’s web info helped motivate him to pass on the pipe.
Gohde says parents often question the choice of difficult topics: homophobia, suicide, and drug addiction. They worry about mature substance and peer blow-back. But this is a no-parent-zone; the students call the shots on subject.
Now in it’s third year, longterm effects are observable. “This is subversive learning. The lesson sticks. They pick up research and writing skills, they become better public speakers. But the biggest take-away is they’ll always remember they tried for change. They see how they can influence things. It’s amazing to watch where it will go”, says Gohde.
Environmental activism is alive in 88% of Irish schools: my daughter’s Dublin primary school worked hard to earn “green flags” for recycling, and cleaning the nearby shoreline. Ireland’s program is among the most successful within an international network of Eco-School initiatives, supported by An Taisce (National Trust for Ireland), Greenstar (Ireland’s leading waste management company), Coca-Cola Bottlers Ireland and The Wrigley Company Ltd..
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently joined this Eco-School program, championed by Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF) and HSBC Bank Middle East Ltd.: to date five UAE schools have earned green flags.
These are excellent programs, developing environmental awareness and collective youth action. But GBD promotes activism on an individual level, with students undertaking roles as ambassadors for specific causes. Kids don’t simply collect waterfront trash, they write letters to campaign against pollution at its source. Aidan didn’t just research equal pay for women, he boldly challenged businessmen in his audience to go back to work and check their payrolls. They develop new websites, and distribute lists of established sites to guide donations and follow-on action. Student fundraising is innovative and strong.
It doesn’t seem like anyone tracks these globe-trotting kids going forward. I wonder if the early opening of their minds keeps apace as they mature.
This school motivates children to assume local social and environmental responsibility. It incites a “leave the place better than you found it” approach to their time in Jordan that they will likely carry to wherever their parents’ next assignments lead. Heavy money that Gohde’s yearlong lesson is building better global citizens.
Images of class trip to view sustainability features of new airport terminal project by Balbo: Image of Amanda’s Red Sea dive by Amanda.