When blogging about happiness and the role education has to play in it, a sensible place to start seems to be with my own experiences. The featured image is of me and my sister. I am fortunate enough to have grown up around differently abled members of our society. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the majority of young people I work with. Service learning offers a unique opportunity to change that – to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions, and to build understanding, empathy, tolerance, and community. What follows is a look into my experiences of facilitating student led Service activities over the past few years.
As a High School educator, I am fortunate enough to work in a school (UWCSEA) that values Service as an integral part of the learning program. For the past three years, I have facilitated weekly Service sessions between groups of our High School Students and our partners across various associations in Singapore that work closely with differently abled young adults. I have led drumming sessions with the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) and more recently, a ‘singing with friends’ group at the Down Syndrome Association Singapore. The sessions, which are planned and executed weekly by our students using Cathy Berger Kayes “5 stages of service learning model”, are designed to develop oral and aural ability, as well to strengthen interpersonal skills.
Very few of the pupils that join the service have ever spent time in the presence of someone with Down Syndrome. In our first session together, after getting to know each other through icebreaker activities and discussing the pupils motivating factors for joining the group, I ask the students to research Down Syndrome online. They note down what qualities and character traits they might expect to witness over the coming weeks and towards the end of the session, they share their findings with the group. The same sequence of events happens each year. There will be a short explanation of the scientific causes of Down Syndrome, the presence of an extra chromosome on the 21st pair, and then there will be a list of character traits. A solely negative list.
They can’t do this…
They struggle to do that.
They’ll be slower at doing this…
It wasn’t the students’ fault. The Internet had failed to provide them with any positive images of the people they were about to meet. Where were all the upside of Downs? Where was the content that reflected my own experiences of people with Down Syndrome? Where was the bit that tells you about their warmth, their genuine, loving and gentle human spirits? Their ability to bring smiles to people’s faces, their pacifistic nature and their openness to communicate their affections? It was nowhere to be found. (FYI, they’re hiding in my echo chamber, I’ll share them in another post!)
Why is this so worrying? As a teacher, I know that the majority of teens will learn about what they don’t have first-hand experience of, online. If these pupils, at one of the most forward thinking and community focused schools in the world, leave their High School education with only negative associations of people with Down Syndrome, how might this carry into their future? When they come across someone with a disability, what impact might their mindsets have on that individual? What cumulative impact might this then have on the wider community? In her 2014 TED talk, Disabled activist Stella Young, states that “we are more disabled by society than by our bodies and our diagnosis.” People with disabilities are not the problem. People’s view of people with disabilities is.
So what can be done about it?
One of our learning principles at UWCSEA states that “We know learning is effective when learners listen, talk and interact with others, therefore, learners must have a range of opportunities to engage with others in a variety of situations.” The concept of “interaction with others” particularly with those different to ourselves, in order to deepen our understanding of the world around use, resonates strongly with me. I’m a big Pocahantos fan and there’s a line in Colours of the Wind which states, “if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll find things you never knew you never knew” – it’s become somewhat of an educational mantra for me. Indeed interacting with those different to ourselves was at the heart of our founder’s, experiential educational ideals. In a post war society Kurt Hahn “thought that if we could educate young people from around the world together, we could prevent future conflicts.” This model draws on the belief that the best way to understand each other, to build tolerance and community, is to spend time in the presence of those different to ourselves. In doing so, were are able to acknowledge, appreciate and deepen our understanding of differences, whilst also discovering the common threads of humanity that lie in us all.
It’s all good in theory but, what’s it really like?
Each week for a year, our students spend a couple of hours in the presence of young adults with Down Syndrome. They play games together, sing with each other and develop relationships over time. If you’d like to know more about how the sessions are structured, Aroni has kindly agreed to share this video she made for her CAS blog.
I’ll let the students speak for themselves on the extent to which their interactions with others has impacted themselves and those around them. Below are a few quotes I have taken from the blogs of students who participated in the DSA service this year.
“By working with them, I am able to come back home and tell my family of the things I’ve learnt and how it is that we can help stop those condescending stereotypes and ideas of Down Syndrome.”
“I think that when people hear that a person has down syndrome, they assume things that are completely wrong and I know this because, during the time I spent with them, I didn’t see a single thing that made them different from other people.”
On interactions with differently abled people in society post service completion.
“I was just able to talk to them like normal and I think one thing that really influenced that normality and ability to just communicate was my work with the DSA students.”
“ They are often victimised, and sometimes I still have to catch myself when I do it, because even though it is a genetic disorder that makes them differently abled and makes them go through certain struggles, they are happy and proud of who they are.”
“I can not explain in words the inner piece and satisfaction I felt in that moment and surprisingly instead of me helping her, she helped me”
The student learning from this Service is evident in the reflections they have made about their experiences – next year I aim to collate feedback from our partners at the DSA too. I should add, it’s not all plain sailing. The sessions, particularly near the start of the year can be awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s life, it’s natural and expected when establishing group dynamics and the students learn from it and come out stronger as a result. It’s reassuring, heart warming and encouraging to see that the empirical evidence presented by the kids, matches the theoretical ideals as posed by Hahn and the wider UWCSEA community.
Service learning makes me happy. Yes, academics are important, but if we are hoping to nurture global citizens, then academics become a necessary but not sufficient part of our role as educators. Service learning makes me happy because it builds tolerance and understanding, empathy and community. Traits the world could do with a big old dose of right about now! I truly believe that these are fundamental and foundational characteristics we must first build in our people if we have any hope of building an accepting global community. And if I, as an educator, can nurture these qualities in a future generation, then I will leave this earth pleased with my contribution to it.