[Originally appeared in the spring issue of the California English journal, 'Teachers Make a Difference']
Mr. G, what can we do to help the homeless?
After a lesson in which we broke down four stories surrounding those living in deep poverty, this small group of 9th graders stayed after class because they were curious about how they could make a difference.
In my communication class I teach compassion and empathy just as much as I teach properly citing your sources. Although these social emotions are not as valued in our standards as other critical thinking skills, it can be argued that they will play just as large a role in the structure of society as most other skills students pick up in a school environment.
I didn’t have a concrete answer to satisfy their curiosity; however I set up a loose framework and by the end of the semester we had fundraised over $1,000 for a local non-profit social service organization in our town, plus gathered and dispersed items to the homeless throughout the city of Ventura.
These students felt empowered by their actions. I did too. We were motivated to do more. Without knowing it at the moment, we had just become activists. Now there was no looking back.
Over the summer, while trying to think of how I could improve my class, I realized that homelessness provides a perfect template for teaching young adults to care about those in their community. It also helped them enhance their critical thinking skills.
Deep poverty is a problem that most students in Southern California have seen since a young age. Now it was becoming an important part of their educational experience.
We started with the why and how: ‘why are there so many homeless people struggling to get by’ and ‘how can we help those in need?’ On the surface they are seen as simple, but once we unpack them it becomes clear to students the troubles that people on the streets face. From there empathy emerges. And from empathy came action.
Each year we’ve proactively pitched in to help people in need. It wasn’t enough to learn about what plagues our hometowns. We needed to take action to make a difference. So we did. We joined in an annual ‘Socktober’ fundraiser created by Los Angeles based YouTube company Soulpancake. For the month of October we collected socks, toiletries, blankets and warm clothes for local homeless shelters. We gathered supplies and created care packages to pass out. Stepping outside the community, one year we worked with the local non-profit NepalAama and provided three needy girls from Nepal with a year’s worth of tuition.
Switching gears, through teaching Talk Like TED for my speech class, I learned about the power of storytelling. When trying to think of how I could take the lessons from my classroom and transfer them to adults in my local community, I decided to write a book on poverty. Through poetry and photography, Not So Simple: Observations on Poverty and People attempted to use art to elicit empathy and compassion from others.
But I refused to get lost in my writing. While working on Not So Simple I continued to construct a curriculum around homelessness, knowing that in order to solve this problem people of all ages would need to better understand this pressing humanitarian crisis plaguing the West Coast.
For the past three years, while working closely with nonprofits, while encouraging students to find their passions and speak their truth, I was working on developing my own voice.
During lessons and trips to downtown Ventura with students, we discussed a variety of topics on how we can help.
Looking back and seeing what my former students are doing, I can say with pride that they’ve found their voice. One student set up her CAS project for IB strictly on helping the homeless. Another student set up her own project and was able to raise over $1,000 for her local SPCA organization.
As teachers I don’t think we’re ever sure how students will respond to our lessons. They were interested and engaged as freshmen, but the telling part for me stemmed from when they came back after graduation, or popped into my classroom as juniors and seniors and shared how they were helping their community.
Whether it’s helping the homeless, the environment, or strengthening race-relations, these young adults are using compassion, empathy, and trusting their own voice to make a difference.
One night in the midst of grading, I checked my email and saw a former student pop up in my email. A freshman at Stanford, she was expressing gratitude about her experience working with the community “I know right now this email sounds kind of random, but I was actually just reflecting on my experiences in your class as I'm applying for a summer position as an RA. I was just amazed by how much our class and subsequent classes were able to help the surrounding communities as freshmen under your guidance. I mean, back then it was like ‘ Oh we did this. That's cool,’ but now it's more like ‘I can't believe we did that.’ I really can't say this enough how much you've impacted the people in my class, and I just wanted to say thank you again for the lessons you've ingrained in us and for your constant messages about kindness and compassion in the world.”
Clearly, I wrote her a glowing recommendation. But her words highlighted what I’ve always hoped teaching could be: a call to activism to better shape the surrounding community. As teachers we are producing future members of society each year. My goal is to play the long game. Preach positivity and compassion, while also making sure students aren’t afraid to speak their mind- even if it is not popular. Popular isn’t always right, and my hope is that they have a strong set of morals and are grounded in them when the opportunity comes for them to take action.
I tried to lead the way. I saw problems in my community and wanted to do something to make a difference. In Not So Simple: Observations on Poverty and People I shared stories of those living on the streets, examined how poverty has persisted and gained ground in the United States, and provided a template for creating empathy and a human-centered approach to communities throughout the country.
This book was built around homelessness, but it’s truly about people. It’s how we see each other. It’s about conscious communication and compassion. It’s a testament to the power of teaching. It’s about having empathy for people who are struggling. California has a homeless crisis. It’s time to listen. It’s time to seek solutions. It’s time to take action.
I now have more answers for students when they ask how to help. And for any teacher looking to take action and inspire, here is a question to start with: What can you do to help your community?