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Teaching Kids to Change the World: Lessons to Inspire Social Responsibility for Grades 6-12

Teaching Kids to Change the World: Lessons to Inspire Social Responsibility for Grades 6-12

by Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner, Chris Maser

Through a series of modules, this resource offers educators and youth-group leaders a means of inspiring social consciousness and action among youth and teaches young people how to think, rather than what to think. Without money, power, or the right to vote, how do children and teenagers find a voice in society? How can educators and leaders


Through a series of modules, this resource offers educators and youth-group leaders a means of inspiring social consciousness and action among youth and teaches young people how to think, rather than what to think. Without money, power, or the right to vote, how do children and teenagers find a voice in society? How can educators and leaders talk meaningfully with students about such broad concepts? Avoiding partisan politics and moral debates, this resource equips educators with philosophical discussion questions, concrete illustrations, and active examples. Each component sets forth a theme or principle about change; a classroom experiment or activity that illustrates the theme; and an example of a social action or service project in which young people can participate to help create the change they wish to see, showing youth their role in the societal and environmental changes that occur across decades or even centuries.

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Teaching Kids to Change the World

Lessons to Inspire Social Responsibility for Grades 6â"12

By Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner, Chris Maser, Tenessa Gemelke, Susan Wootten

Search Institute Press

Copyright © 2008 Search Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57482-877-1



Life Is an Open-Ended Experiment

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in Nature. ... Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Helen Keller (1880–1968), American activist and author

The realities we accept as obvious, neutral, objective, and simply "the way the world works" are actually structures we create as we think and live. They are created by our rendition of history, our understanding of ourselves, of society, and of our world — and they are a partial view of the whole. Our individual knowledge is always limited, and we must be mindful of our own naïveté.


It Is Wise to Have a Beginner's Mind

Several years ago, Jennifer and her husband, John, traveled with friends and family to Castlegregory, Ireland. One of the natural highlights of this lush area is Inch Strand, a long, wide stretch of light sand and blue-green water. At low tide the beach expands up to an additional mile, leaving plenty of room for exploration.

In addition to its natural beauty, the beach has a rich history. The remains of Ireland's oldest civilization were excavated from dunes behind the strand. Pirates reportedly lured ships onto the sands in bad weather and then plundered them. More recently, several films have been produced here.

During their holiday, Jennifer and John borrowed a rental car from their traveling companions. Their first ill-advised decision was to drive a rental car for which they were not insured. After a bit of shopping they headed to the strand.

The beach was longer and lovelier than words can describe and seemed to melt into the ocean at its tip. John really wanted to see the tip. That's when they made their second bad decision. Despite the large "Do NOT Drive on the Strand" sign, they drove onto the beach.

Flying along in the car, the strand felt light and smooth, which led John to comment that he couldn't see what the problem was; driving on the sand, he observed, was much like driving in snow, as he and Jennifer had so often and capably done at home in Minnesota. In fact, like many native Minnesotans, they prided themselves on being experts when it came to driving in snow.

Then they stopped — their third bad decision.

Once stopped, they could not get going again. The car's wheels simply spun deeper into the soft sand, encountering more and more of it. It did feel like being stuck in snow, although with snow one eventually hits frozen ground or road. On a beach, of course, the tide eventually rolls in. For a while, John and Jennifer just stood and watched, not knowing what else to do.

Finally, three kind souls stopped to help. After many unsuccessful attempts by John to drive while the others pushed, one of the Irish gentlemen — bemused but also familiar with this type of situation — told John to get out of the car. With four people pushing, he slipped the car into second gear and shot off down the beach — with the car, Jennifer and John's passports, gifts in the trunk, and some of their money. Their rental cottage had no phone, and Inch Strand was several miles from the nearest town.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The man drove all the way to the warning sign (perhaps to emphasize the travelers' flagrant disregard for local regulations), and stopped there to wait for them. John and Jennifer didn't speak on the entire drive back to Castlegregory. They have never again been foolish enough to think they could outsmart nature and the collective wisdom of a local culture.

Because Jennifer and John considered themselves expert drivers, they thought they knew better than the local people what they could do on the beach with a vehicle — based solely on the appearance of the beach and their experience driving in snow. Such thinking blinded them to what they didn't know about the differences between a snowy road and a sandy beach.

If we believe we are always experts, then we often think we know what the answers should be (that driving on a snowy road and a sandy beach are interchangeable circumstances requiring the same skills), but the reality is that we can no longer see all of what the answers might be. Abeginner, on the other hand, is free to explore and discover a multiplicity of realities (often thought of as "beginner's luck"), while the expert grows rigid in a self-created box composed of a single reality. The beginner thus may understand a question better than the expert, and is less likely to become literally or figuratively stuck in solving a problem. Children, with their intuitive wisdom, often understand this concept better than adults.




To illustrate for young people that being open to figuring something out, even if the task seems difficult or impossible, often sparks tremendous creativity and problem solving.


A large tarp or sheet (about 5 feet by 5 feet)

Class Steps

1. Tell the class that the tarp or sheet represents an island.

2. Say that a group from the class is going to go camping on the island. Ask for five or six volunteers to step onto the island.

3. Then say: "I forgot to mention that the campsite needs to be rotated in order to conserve the area." Since it's so small, the only option is to flip the tarp over.

4. Instruct the group to flip over the tarp without stepping or falling into the shark-infested "water" all around.

5. If necessary, tell the group they must not lift anyone above shoulder level.

6. When the tarp has been successfully turned over, ask for five or six new volunteers and repeat the process until all students have had a chance to participate.

Follow-up Discussion

1. What did you think of the task when it was first described? Did it seem possible? Why or why not?

2. Describe how you figured out a solution for flipping the tarp.

3. How did the first group approach the exercise? Later groups?

4. Did you "know" intuitively what to do?

5. Did you have ideas you thought might work? What were they? Did they work the way you thought they would?

6. When you were a spectator, did you think the group standing on the island would be able to flip it? Why or why not?



Throughout Teaching Kids to Change the World, we provide suggestions for taking concepts "to the next level" and helping young people have beginners' minds regarding their abilities to find, explore, and try new and different ways to change the world. Start with the activities below to encourage young people to think in new ways about themselves and their lives.

Level 1

Explain to students that one part of who they are is how they spend their time. We each have 24 hours a day to spend on fun, work, learning, chores, and taking care of ourselves. Ask students to sketch a clock face on paper and write on it or decorate it with the ways they spend an average day. They can illustrate a typical school day, a weekend, or both. After the clocks are completed, hold a group discussion about what students learned, any surprises they encountered, and what, if anything, they might like to change.

Level 2

Distribute copies of Resource 1: Finding a Path to Explore on page 4. Ask students to read through the information and add ideas of their own.

Level 3

Talk with students about how acting according to their beliefs is often not as simple as they might think. Questions that seem at first to have clear "black and white" answers may later appear in shades of gray when it comes time to make a choice. Use Resource 2: Black, White, and Gray on page 5 as a discussion starter.



Everything We Do Is an Exercise in Relationships

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), American political leader

Nothing can exist outside the context of a relationship. Everything you do, therefore, is an exercise in relationship, just as you experience a relationship with gravity when you pick up this book (if you release the book, it will fall). Further, you are practicing a relationship with the cloud that brought the rain that nurtured the tree that was cut and hauled to the paper mill, where it was prepared as pulp to make the paper upon which these words are printed.

When you read these words, you are practicing a relationship with the meaning stored in them through written language — the archive of humanity's journey through time. And you might explain this idea to your students through the spoken word, which holds the same meaning as the written word, stored in sound, with which you are also practicing a relationship.


Everything Is Defined by Relationships

Try as we might to control our physical surroundings, our day-to-day experiences, and our "inputs and outputs," our relationships to these things are constantly changing. Hence, there is no such thing in our environment as an independent variable or a constant value.

The first time our friend Ann visited the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, she was delighted to see and hear the many howler monkeys living in the area. Ann, a Midwesterner, thought the monkeys were both exotic and exciting. When she and her family moved to Costa Rica several years later, they were delighted to find many monkeys living on their property. However, the longer Ann and her family lived in Costa Rica, the less enchanted they felt, as their relationship with the monkeys began to change.

In fact, the monkeys became a nuisance, especially when their loud howling pierced the early morning calm. After all, the monkeys are called "howlers" for a good reason — although they sound less like howling dogs or wolves than they do screeching airplanes landing or large pieces of machinery rolling in. Regardless of how you might interpret the sound, it seems to come from everywhere at once.

Next, something happened to further change the family's relationship with the monkeys. A baby howler, which normally rode on its mother's back, fell from the trees into Ann's yard. The family dog, Luna, whom they had adopted in part as protection from wild animals entering their home, found the baby monkey and began carrying it around — perhaps to play with or eat.

Ann and her 10-year-old son became concerned about the young monkey's safety, as did its mother, who was waiting in a nearby tree. After a good deal of coaxing, Ann eventually convinced Luna to release the baby howler and come back to the house.

At first the monkey lay completely still on the ground, at some distance from the tree. After several moments it lifted its head and slowly pulled itself closer to its mother. Several more minutes passed, and it did the same thing again. This time, the baby monkey's mother was able to reach down and retrieve her baby, after which she scampered off, with her baby riding "monkey back."

In a relatively short time, Ann and her family experienced the howler monkeys as an exotic treat, a thrill, a nuisance, as mother and child, as chew toy, as a victim, and as a survivor.




To demonstrate that, while the physical characteristics of marbles (such as size and weight) do not change, the way they behave and relate to one another changes significantly as their environment (or context) changes.


• Flat aluminum pie pan

• Slightly dented aluminum pie pan

• Ten marbles of the same size

• Two or three marbles of different sizes

• Paper and pen

Class Steps

1. Place the flat pan on a level tabletop.

2. Put ten same-size marbles in the pan any way you wish. Observe how they are spaced in relation to one another and to the edge of the pan.

3. Move one marble. How does it appear in relation to its neighbors and to the edge of the pan — closer? Farther away?

4. Take one marble out of the pan. Does removing one marble affect the other nine marbles? If so, how?

5. Now, replace the marble and add an odd-sized marble. Has this addition affected the others in the pan? If so, how?

6. Transfer the marbles to the slightly dented pan. How does the placement (relationship) of the marbles change in the pan? What happens if the pan and marbles are placed on a slant? How does this change affect their relationship?

Note: If students don't perceive the effects of these steps, point out the way marbles quiver or roll when the conditions are changed.

Follow-up Discussion

1. Is there anything you can do to the marbles in either the flat pan or the bent pan that will not have an effect on the other marbles or on the pan itself?

2. What does this experiment tell you about how the parts of this experiment relate to one another?

3. What can we learn from this exercise about relationships between other objects? Between plants and animals? Between people?


All Relationships Have Consequences

While working in Egypt in 1963, Chris decided to visit a black hill in the Egyptian desert about 300 miles southwest of Alexandria. This part of Egypt is flat and sandy, featuring vast areas of desert pavement, which consists of smallish rocks that cover the surface of the sand.

After traveling by Jeep for some time, Chris's Bedouin guide instructed him (through an interpreter) to steer the Jeep a few inches to the right. To Chris, the instruction sounded ridiculous. He wondered what difference a tiny adjustment of three inches could possibly make in the journey. The man didn't even have a map! Nevertheless, Chris was finally persuaded to make this seemingly insignificant change.

Two days later they arrived at the black hill. The guide told Chris to look at his map of the region. When they spread the map on the hood of the jeep, Chris learned a lesson in humility. His guide drew a triangle showing that the course correction of three inches near Alexandria had saved about 50 miles on the way to the black hill. Had the travelers gone Chris' way, they would not have had enough fuel or water for the return trip, which would have resulted in possible dehydration or even death.

Chris learned that the further he made predictions into the trackless future, the more conscious and clear he had to be about:

• Where he wanted to go, and why;

• How he was going to navigate;

• The value of a successful journey; and

• The cost his success would impose on others.

The last condition was of extra importance. Had the group continued Chris's way, they would never have found the black hill, and the bones of three travelers might still be bleaching in the desert decades later.

We humans exist in relationship to our surroundings. And it is also the case that every relationship gives us a feeling, a sensation — and that is a consequence. Think for a moment about how you feel and what the sensation or consequence is when you experience the following:

• Your students enter your classroom for the first time each day.

• The last student leaves each day.

• You arrive home at day's end.

• You gaze upon a glorious sunrise or sunset.

• You burn yourself on a hot stove.

• You have a flat tire on your way to work.

• You have a serious disagreement with a friend.

• Someone close to you dies.

• You see a loved one after a long absence.

• You discover the first flower of spring.

• You leave on a long-anticipated vacation.

Each of these circumstances evokes a sensation, a feeling that epitomizes your relationship with a momentary aspect of life, whether you are conscious of it or not. Ultimately, these seemingly isolated incidents coalesce to give you an overall experience of your life as you perceive it. On the other hand, should two people face precisely the same circumstances in their lives, each would experience them differently, because they are different people from different backgrounds, which causes them to perceive the world differently. In the end, life consists of a series of relationships that create other series of relationships, and each encounter results in a consequence.




Students experience the significant long-term impact that even seemingly tiny adjustments in their approaches can make.


• Athletic field

• Tape measure or ruler

Class Steps

1. Starting at the center of an athletic field, divide the class into three groups.

2. From the same starting point, ask all students to face one end of the field. Send the first group walking on a straight line in this direction.

3. Next, have the second group turn slightly to the right and send the second group off on a straight line of travel.


Excerpted from Teaching Kids to Change the World by Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner, Chris Maser, Tenessa Gemelke, Susan Wootten. Copyright © 2008 Search Institute. Excerpted by permission of Search Institute Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner is a youth-development consultant and the author of Generators: 20 Activities to Recharge Your Intergenerational Group; The Journey of Community Change: A How-To Guide for Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth Initiatives; and Your Family: Using Simple Wisdom in Raising Your Children. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chris Maser is the coauthor of Evaluating Sustainable Development: Giving People a Voice in Their Destiny as well as the author of more than 250 articles and 20 books, including The Perpetual Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking the Future. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. 

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