Sunday, October 19, 2014

Service Learning. Is It Good Enough?

This past Tuesday, my students took the best kind of test after reading a book: they brought its theme to life. After reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, we went through the typical conversation of squeezing out the recurring themes of the book. Over and over, Junior--the fictionalized version of Sherman Alexie--is pushed aside, marginalized. It isn't until people start filling him with hope (including himself) that he finally realizes his potential.

So, I asked a very simple question: Who can we provide with hope who might not already have it? 

Then, my 16/17-year-old kids (yes, kids--I love them like my own) started to plan:

  • First, the idea. They bounced around plans of giving hope to our special education department and to incoming freshmen and to senior citizens--all of them, good ideas. But they landed, finally, on serving the people in our community who are in need of food. 
  • Second, the fundraising. Students gathered the necessary $545 to sponsor a food truck in all kind of wonderful ways: straight parent donations, collections around their lunch tables, taking out change from their pockets. In just a week, we had the money.
  • Third, the planning. My students had to do the work of the food truck as well. Initially, they were running into roadblocks with lots of different calls to different companies. Then, we got smart about it. They connected themselves to a group of people who do this on a regular basis in our community: All Shores Wesleyan. Once we were connected, the the volunteers of All Shores Wesleyan took us in. They guided us along the way. 
  • Fourth, the execution. On Tuesday, the food truck arrived, the people in need arrived, and the students served.
But I must end this post with a question: is this ending project of a book as good as a test? Certainly, this project did not ask for the plot points of the novel. It did not ask for character analysis. (While we read, we did have a halfway quiz that did ask for these things.) But, it did get students who are not members of service groups at the school to get out in the community. It did give them real experience of working and listening to adults and empathy to community members. 

It did provide us all with an experience we'll never forget.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Two-thirds of my life has been spent in Spring Lake, Michigan. It was the home of my adolescence and it's my home again as an adult. Spring Lake has helped to make me who I am. 

Last year, our community discussed a critical issue: bullying and, more importantly, empathy. By reading Emily Bazelon's book, Sticks and Stones, we raised difficult questions. We reflected. We came to an understanding and we wanted to continue the conversation. 

It means everything that I can give back to it--with this book: Elevate Empathy: The Power of Kindness.

Elevate Empathy: The Power of Kindness was written with help from eighteen other contributors, Carlyn Arteaga (a high school senior who directly inserted herself into the success of the book club). Local book publisher, Dan Ireland and his company, Three Leaf Press, agreed to publish under the most rare terms: not for profit. Anything we earn with these printed words will be given back to the community in order to raise empathy.

Empathy is powerful. It makes all involved elevate. It makes all involved--the one who gives empathy and the one who receives empathy--better. Empathy allows us to reach our potential while bullying keeps us from it.

As we learned through our book club last fall, empathy--understanding each other--is the way to a better community, a better nation, a better world. 

Emily Bazelon, herself, wrote the introduction for our book. In it, she writes, "These pieces are full of insight and wisdom, writ small and writ large, and I'm honored to have played a small part in spurring this project."

For those in the West Michigan area, please note that The Bookman in Grand Haven, Michigan will be hosting a one-hour event where some of the contributors will read from the book and where we will all engage in a short discussion on the state of bullying and empathy in our community. Elevate Empathy: The Power of Kindness will be on sale during that event or through Amazon. 

There are too many people to thank, but, mostly, I need to thank the community. It has raised me in many ways. Now, I'm just glad I can give back.