Guest Essay: Imagine Solutions -- and better education

(Editor’s note: In a guest commentary after February’s Imagine Solutions conference in Naples, the organization said eighth grade Oak Ridge Middle School teacher Victoria Peterson, who attended last year’s event, was so affected by the social entrepreneur speakers that she designed an entire curriculum around them and introduced it into her classroom and to other educators. "The class has responded brilliantly, demonstrating levels of creativity, compassion and commitment that are truly extraordinary,’’ the essay said.

She accepted the Daily News’ invitation to explain.)

By Victoria Peterson

Naples

Language Arts Teacher

Oakridge Middle School

"Knowledge, excitement and inspiration — and several ah- ha moments."

That was the promise of the 2010 Imagine Solutions Conference.

The ah-ha moments were many and I was fortunate enough to be there to experience each one!

The presentations by the social entrepreneurs really got my attention: innovation, collaboration, empowerment, leadership, teamwork, empathy!

All are concepts that I continually focus on in my language arts class at Oakridge Middle School.

What an opportunity! These amazing, passionate young people saw problems, searched for solutions, found them and are now making a difference. I wanted our students to be exposed to the incredible commitment and creativity exhibited by each of these social entrepreneurs.

With the assistance of some very dedicated individuals with the Imagine Solutions Institute, we developed a curriculum featuring discussion guides and activities to enhance the video clips from each social entrepreneur. The guides correlate with the Collier County eighth grade language arts curriculum and the Sunshine State Standards. While focusing on the theme "How one person can make a difference when encountering a social need,’’ students in several Collier County classrooms viewed the segments featuring the social entrepreneurs and completed related activities. These presentations and activities helped them gain an understanding of the many challenges facing our community, our nation and our world: global conflicts, health, poverty, education, pollution and energy.

Focusing on the challenge of health, we listened to Josh Sommer speak about a rare form of cancer. The students were inspired to write poetry, create and produce a rap video and write letters of encouragement and appreciation for all he is doing. Jonny Dorsey and Barbara Bush spoke about their global health initiative heightening the awareness of the students to challenges faced by Third World countries.

Responding to the challenge of global conflicts and, in connection with our study of the Holocaust, we learned about today’s genocides in Darfur, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Congo. Students were outraged to learn that these atrocities are still occurring. They were moved by the work that Mark Hanis has done in connection with the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-NET) empowering individuals with the tools to stop and prevent genocide.

The students explored various areas of genocide throughout the world by connecting to GI-NET and investigated ways to address the problem of modern day genocides. Some students chose to write letters to their congressional representatives asking that Congress support bills to fight the spread of genocide and to support negotiations within countries to condemn mass atrocities. Other students chose to create a timeline of genocides from the Holocaust to the present, while others wrote poems and songs expressing their sadness about genocide around the world.

Regarding the challenge of education, students listened to Rajiv Vinnnakota, founder of the SEED Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for inner–city children. The students engaged in stimulating discussions about the educational process and the importance of a relevant and engaging curriculum for all students. They realized that courage, communication, collaboration and empathy are key elements in becoming a successful social entrepreneur, a successful student and a successful member of society.

We used this lesson as a starting point to create their individual utopian communities. Small groups of students collaborated to design their perfect society including their idea of a perfect educational system. What were their essential requirements for the ideal school in a perfect society? A school where freedom of expression is valued, time to work together is built into the curriculum and time for thinking is appreciated and encouraged.

The most powerful part of the Imagine Solutions project was the focus on poverty. Jessamyn Waldman, a young woman in New York City, established Hot Bread Kitchens to train immigrant women to provide for their families by baking bread of their native culture and selling it to restaurants throughout the New York area.

The students were truly inspired. Working in partnership with another class, we baked bread from various cultures and sold it to raise money. With the proceeds, and in collaboration with the Education Foundation of Collier County, we donated 47 copies of "Scat’’ by Carl Hiaasen to Village Oaks Elementary School in Immokalee for their after-school program. With this project, the students felt empowered and gained a sense of accomplishment in being able to give back to our community.

Through creativity, collaboration and perseverance the students have discovered that they too can make a difference and that they will have the necessary skills to respond to the challenges of tomorrow.

Peterson has been teaching for 42 years, the last eight in Collier County at Oakridge. She has a master’s degree in education degree from Syracuse University. She is a National Board-certified teacher and a Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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