Fri, May 07, 2010
The Straits Times
Don't force students to do good

By Tan Hui Yee, Correspondent

EDUCATION these days is being broadened to give students firmer grounding in sports, art, music and communication. It is also heading out of the classroom - making it hard to graduate here without digging a well in Vietnam, building a school in Cambodia, or jiggling tin cans to raise funds for charity.

With the spotlight on learning through community service - or service learning - one would expect advocates to want it made mandatory, but not Ms Ann Medlock. She thinks this 'compulsory' approach is all wrong.

'It's a shame. It makes it a chore and a drudgery. It ought to be a great joy and that happens only when kids figure it out themselves,' says the 76-year-old founder of the United States-based Giraffe Heroes Project, an organisation that honours those who 'stick their necks out for the common good' in publications and online.

The 26-year-old organisation runs on a simple premise: By honouring and airing stories of people who show courage in solving their community's problems, it inspires others to do the same. Some of the people it has highlighted - including Dr Muhammad Yunus, founder of the microloan-focused Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, as well as Professor Wangari Maathai, who founded the conservation Green Belt Movement in Kenya - have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In town recently for the Women In The Community: Change Movers conference organised by the Singapore Management University's Wee Kim Wee Centre and supported by the Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund, the writer drew wows from the audience with her stories.

They included: A homemaker who became mayor to rid her city of mob control; a teacher who risked torture to educate girls; and a cheerleader who risked ridicule by fielding a cheer team with physical and learning disabilities.

She tells The Straits Times: 'We tell kids stories of people who are doing these kinds of things and then we say, 'Who do you know is like that? Find a story and tell us.' By that time, almost inevitably, they are saying, 'I could do something like this.''

One American school teacher, she says, arranged for his students to clean up a neighbourhood park one day. 'The kids called him a slave-driver...they hid in the park instead of cleaning it up.' A few years later, the same teacher started telling another class stories of extraordinary people from the Giraffe Heroes archive. 'The kids decided they wanted to clean up the same park. The teacher was laughing and crying at the same time. He said, 'I couldn't get them to stop. They were painting things, they were clearing the trash, they were trimming trees. They just wouldn't stop.''

Service learning plugs the gaps created by school systems which 'isolate children from the rest of the world', she says. It also frees students from the constraints of the classroom, where 'we make them sit still in little chairs and not talk and not move and they are so bored they want to die'.

She concedes that the Giraffe Heroes' 'sneaky' approach of leading by inspiration is unlikely to take off among the school authorities who have decided that service learning is too much of a good thing to be left optional.

But she pleads: 'Give them choices... If you say to them 'What do you care about? What do you see in your family, or on the streets that might need some fixing?' and let them choose what to do, they will be very creative, committed and involved.'

Her organisation, which has commended more than 1,000 Giraffe Heroes in every US state and in 27 countries, recognises individuals for the personal risks they take for the larger good. Those hanging on to the status quo usually consider them 'crackpots'.

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