Global community service helps others; it makes us feel good about ourselves, and, increasingly, it is used by students to assist with their college applications. But can it also be integrated into a high school curriculum to educate students about the world they live in?
At Blair Academy, a preparatory school in New Jersey, faculty think that it can, and, therefore, they are developing a curriculum that uses service projects in Kenya to help students understand and appreciate complex global issues.
Blair in Kenya” was created a decade ago to provide students with the opportunity to both experience a foreign culture and to perform community service abroad; however, driven by student interest, it soon expanded to more concrete service projects. Today, Blair in Kenya runs two schools which educate over 200 students. It manages a micro-finance lender that funds nearly 100 loans, it operates an medical clinic that gives many Kenyans their first access to a doctor, and it works with local people in a variety of way that benefits both of our school and their community.
Starting with the construction of The Blair Educational Center, Blair students and faculty have worked in a partnership with local people to both empower and uplift. In 2011, Community leaders approached the Blair Academy faculty about the pressing need for an Elementary school. Following discussions about how Blair and the community could work together on this project, the faculty agreed that the village would donate the land and provide a volunteer committee to hire teachers, select students, and run the school. Blair would then raise the money to construct the necessary buildings and sponsor many of the poorest students. Each step of the way would involve collaboration.
That partnership continues today. The village donated the land to the project, and the school is already self-sufficient financially, with the $3/month school fees paying teacher salaries and other expenses. We have raised the money to construct five classrooms, toilets, a kitchen, and a well. Each year, Blair students and faculty meet with local leaders to discuss ongoing plans to improve the school. Currently, Blair Academy is working on the construction of a computer center and library, as well as a soccer field. Almost 1/3 of the students are sponsored by members of the Blair community, and each June Blair students spend a week working with the students. 18 participants each carry 100 pounds of supplies for the school, including computers, clothing, sports equipment, and medical supplies. Additionally, Blair students paint the school, teach classes, play with the students, visit their homes and families, and prepare and serve a lunch to everyone at the school.
The trip is billed as a community service project, but, as anyone who has done this sort of thing knows, often the one who is providing the service finds that they gain far more than they give. And perhaps more important than providing “service,” students develop cross-cultural relationships. These friendships open up a new understanding and appreciation of others, and expose “privileged” Americans to the challenges that less fortunate communities face in our diverse world. Our experience is that this trip changes the American students to have a greater appreciation of the problems that are faced by those in the developing world. Trip alumni stay connected with their new friends via Facebook, and they continue to support the students and adults that they have met. Increasingly, they are returning to Kenya to visit again and, we hope, are learning of the virtues of living a life that leaves the world a better place.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Blair is implementing a curriculum to provide its students with a hands-on experience with developing world problems. Freshmen take a course called Global Issues which explores complex issues that go beyond national boundaries, such as human rights violations, genocide, terrorism, global poverty, world trade, and environmental challenges. One of these units explores the causes and solutions to global poverty, with a particular focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to hearing from lecturers and reading a number of academic papers, all freshman attend a presentation by the Kenya participants who show pictures, discuss things they learned on the trip, and answer questions. The freshmen then engage in a research project that examines the causes and potential solutions to these issues. Hoping to get beyond abstract discussions, Blair exposes them to the real world issues that we face in Kenya and they are then challenged to propose practical solutions. Blair believes that in a country that increasingly looks to standardized testing as a method of “education”, project-based learning and complex problem-solving is a better path to intellectual growth. Not all of the students agree on the right steps to take, but they all leave the course with a better understanding of our role in the world.
Other students in the school are involved as well. Blair science students are working on innovative, environmentally friendly projects to assist with the practical problems of electricity, water purification, and cooking. The current project involves developing a cheap light that runs on gravity. The goal is that we can use this student-designed product to improve the lives of the students in our Kenyan schools. Further, Blair art students are engaged in creating an arts curriculum in Kenya: they organized a fundraiser centered on their talents with all the proceeds being used to developing art education in a country where there really isn’t any. Additionally, the basketball and soccer teams collect shoes and balls for donation to needy schools, students organize fundraisers on campus, drives to collect balls, shoes, and sports equipment, and write articles for the school newspaper. Blair is also hoping to send the girls’ basketball team to Kenya to run clinics for girls in these communities.
This program is in its infancy and the connection between Blair and Kenya will continue to grow. Blair hopes that by exposing its students to real world problems, they will both develop an understanding of global issues and the intelligence and thoughtfulness to start to work towards creative solutions to these problems. Blair Academy believes that the leaders of tomorrow need to be encouraged to explore innovative solutions to important global challenges. We are all connected on this mysterious planet, and Blair in Kenya hopes to continue to increase the connection between its service projects and the efforts to improve student’s abilities to think. In short, Blair Academy proposes a relationship of cross-global partnership that develops a deeper understanding of global citizenship in which students are able to learn from one another.
Quint Clarke is a history teacher at Blair Academy and a founder of Blair in Kenya, Inc. To learn more about this project, go to www.blairinkenya.com or email him at email@example.com.