By Kristina Hulvershorn
My very best moments as a humane educator have always been when the learning becomes impassioned and active. What I mean is that too often, learning is viewed as words on a page or time spent between passing periods. When humane education is viewed for what it really is, a chance for youth to glimpse and then engage with the world outside of their school walls, the results can be incredible. Often, the way to do this is to create opportunities for youth to understand factual information, acknowledge their power as people and as leaders, and then get out of the way! We’ve put together a few tips for educators who want to take humane education to the next level where students are ACTIVE and fully engaged.
1. Allow students access to real information. Sometimes we, as adults, educators, and parents, want to shield children from the painful realities of things like child labor, animal abuse, and environmental destruction. I have found that students are fascinated by these topics because of a genuine concern for the world around them. Empathy is like a muscle, it gets stronger with practice – give students a chance to practice those empathy skills by allowing them access to real issues that need their attention!
2. Create real and interesting pathways for learning. If pollution is the topic, why not observe and measure it, rather than simply reading facts about it? If you are studying reasons why some people seek sanctuary, why not arrange for a real relationship with a person who has found refuge in this country (in person, through video chat, or a phone call)? Many people are eager to share their stories!
3. Passion matters. Let students follow their passion. As an adult, you know how good it feels to learn and engage with subjects that are interesting and that really speak to you. Kids are no different. If they are particularly drawn to certain subject areas, find ways to ignite that spark!
4. Don’t be afraid to make it personal. Our own choices are connected to these big themes and topics. Introspection is a useful tool. Why not ask students to track their energy usage for a month, calculate carbon from their breakfast choices, research what chemicals are in their shampoo, or find out where the classroom rug was made? Any opportunity to make learning real, take it! We can’t expect students to take initiative outside of classroom walls if they haven’t been shown that world as part of their learning.
5. If a subject is too complicated, break it down, define words, and expect that students will rise to the occasion. Even complicated concepts like the legislative process, the materials economy, or the science of global climate change can be simplified to concepts that even pre-k and kindergarten students can understand. Role play, make models, seek out videos, find diagrams, and your students will amaze you with their ability to grasp complicated subject matter.
6. Give them examples of people who have successfully created change (especially youth). I am of the mind that history books should be full of people like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Malala Yousef, Iqbal Massey, and Craig Kielberger (check them out if you haven’t heard of them)! Youth can see themselves as leaders more readily when they are familiar with the stories of changemakers like these.
7. Get out of their way! Let go of your own narrative on how students should impact change. Listen to their ideas. Support their vision. Sometimes youth may need support in terms of how to implement their ideas and how to get resources, but often, their visions are powerful and deserve to be seen through to fruition! Adults often think of predictable service learning opportunities that are noble but not particularly visionary. When we harness the spirit of youth with their care and concern, the sky is the limit.
Recently, HEART partnered with a local elementary school. All students received a series of lessons about core humane education content. The teachers were then asked to allow students to develop projects based on what they learned. The teachers were astonished and so proud that their students came up with truly touching and impactful activities, from neighborhood clean ups, to letter writing campaigns, and everything in between.
What started as a lesson on climate change with students from Sidener Academy has turned into a successful campaign to eliminate polystyrene trays (district wide!) and is now a no-idling campaign.
On our way to a tour of the new bus transit hub here in Indianapolis, I couldn’t believe how long it was taking my group to make it down the street…until I realized the learning was so real to them that they couldn’t stop themselves from picking up litter. “Get out of their way!” I reminded myself.