The Kind of Learning We Need

This article was written by Nancy Doda, an international expert in powerful learning for students

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At Americans Who Tell The Truth, we are eager to stir the hearts and minds of young people towards caring deeply and acting boldly to make our world a better place. Often such initiatives are reserved for experiences outside school learning. We believe, however, that connecting school and life holds the greatest promise for enhancing student engagement and creating enduring learning. As such we have created The Samantha Smith Challenge to build a bridge between the classroom and the community and show students that no matter what age, they can be part of solving the challenges and problems they see in the world.

The Samantha Smith Challenge (SSC) is named for a young peace activist, Samantha Smith, whose single voice made a positive difference in the world affairs of her time. Samantha entered young adolescence during a critical time in world history when the then Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a cold war. In December 1982, when Samantha was ten years old, she appealed to her mother to help explain this tension. She explained “I asked my mother who would start a war and why. She showed me a news magazine with a story about America and Russia, one that had a picture of the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, on the cover. We read it together. It seemed that the people in both Russia and America were worried that the other country would start a nuclear war. It all seemed so dumb to me. I had learned about the awful things that had happened during World War II, so I thought that nobody would ever want to have another war. I told Mom that she should write to Mr. Andropov to find out who was causing all the trouble. She said, ‘Why don’t you write to him?’ So I did.”

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Samantha wrote that letter and eventually visited the Soviet Union where she launched a peace-making venture that may have in fact helped avert a war. She also brought Russian and American students together to build understanding and appreciation of one another and to focus on building allies and connections instead of armies.

Like Samantha, many young adolescents are ready to ask the hard questions about problems they observe in their lives and the world. Adolescence is a pivotal time in human development. During this period of tremendous growth and change, our students experience significant cognitive, physical, emotional, and moral shifts. Decades ago, developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson declared adolescence an entry into life’s identity crisis. This is the time in life when young people entertain questions like: Who am I? What do I believe in? What matters in my life and in the world? How can I be all I want to be? How can I help others in need? Why do bad things happen to good people?, and so on. In many ways, young adolescents are emerging philosophers, and burgeoning Samaritans as a consequence of their developmental shifts. These important life shifts are so profound that some have argued that who we become between the years of 10-19 shapes the trajectory of who we are in our adult lives. So it is that these “turning point” years offer us a marked chance to stimulate the civic sentiments and caring dispositions we all aspire for young people to acquire as they grow.

Bacteria in Our School

Participation in the SSC can yield many rich educational benefits for students, teachers, and community. The nature of learning that emerges from the SSC is unique because it holds the capacity to engage young adolescents in an empowering entry into real-world issues, as they are asked to identify and investigate an unresolved issue or disturbing problem in their communities. Moreover, it seeks to bring young people into awareness of the persistent issues that challenge others in their communities and in our world.  It aspires to cultivate the natural altruistic dispositions in our young people and help them understand the power of civic participation to make the world a better place.

In particular, students participating in the SSC will develop a broad range of sensibilities, aptitudes, and understandings that reflect traditional academic standards, 21st-century learning outcomes, and social, emotional and civic dispositions. Last year, over 700 middle school students from schools across the state of Maine participated in the Samantha Smith Challenge. In June, at the state capitol, many participating students gathered to share their findings and accomplishments. These students declared this to be the most exciting project of their school year. Many noted they were transformed by what they learned and gratified by what they could do to help resolve the issue they investigated. Students observed that they learned how to conduct real-world research, interface with local officials, and organize evidence in ways that could be shared with others. For many, and most importantly, this was the first time in their schooling they had actually focused on examining a real, local issue or problem in earnest.

Lyman Moore

Educators planning for the SSC rightfully want reassurance that this learning experience will assist them in meeting the CCSS or state standards. As you plan to engage your students in the SSC, it may be helpful to keep in mind that the SSC seeks to meet or exceed many of the CCSS. By its very nature, the challenge addresses what we choose to call “power standards”- standards drawn from a rich bank of standards embedded in the Common Core standards, 21st century Learning, social and emotional literacy, and service learning.

Leonard MSThe nature of the SSC evokes certain standards over others. In particular, most challenge experiences require students:

  • to identify a troublesome social issue or concern,
  • to design and conduct research,
  • to read and comprehend a wide variety of complex, nonfiction text,
  • to interview others,
  • to gather, compile and interpret a wide variety of data,
  • to choose effective ways to organize and represent the data they collect,
  • to write, and speak clearly throughout all phases of the work,
  • to gather data and communicate results through varied media,
  • to use data to persuade others,
  • to rally for action,
  • to interface with diverse people in positive ways,
  • to manage time productively to complete multi-step work,
  • to collaborate with others in all phases of the challenging work,
  • to listen attentively to others,
  • to apply knowledge wisely to generate recommendations for action,
  • to show empathy for others and the difficult circumstances they face,
  • to understand how local citizens can make a difference in their communities,
  • to appreciate the challenges of changing beliefs and practices,
  • to embrace the value of using knowledge to improve lives,
  • to create new and promising solutions to community problems.

These skills and understandings should sound very familiar. As “power standards”, they address career and college readiness, emotional and social health, civic and service preparedness, and the life-long skill set young people need to manage 21st -century living.

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Participation in the SSC, of course, does more than help our young people meet these many standards. In particular, it brings life into the curriculum. Since real world issues are complex and multidisciplinary, they call on students to draw upon a wide array of content knowledge, to utilize diverse academic and social skills, and to develop social and emotional dispositions often associated with civic and social learning.

Just as many adolescents have the developmental capacity to ask philosophical questions about life and the world, likewise many wonder about the meaning and value of what they are learning in school. Many ask: Why would anyone want to learn this? What does this have to do with anything in the real world? When can I use this? As one middle school student declared in a recent focus group, “We need to learn real stuff about life and not just stuff from the textbook.” Powerful learning demands that we find ways to connect our curriculum to the world and the SSC can help us do just that.

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Those who have participated in the Samantha Smith Challenge have repeatedly reminded us that young people are concerned about the welfare of others and our world. Their projects rested on provocative questions such as:

  • What energy source will most sustainably take us into the future?

How can an individual’s choice impact the environment?

  • What is it like to be in poverty and what can we do about it?
  • What can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?
  • What does it mean to eat healthily?
  • How can we educate people about the negative impacts of marine pollution on the York beaches, and get rid of single-use plastic bags?
  • How can we work together in conjunction with the Maine State government to reduce homelessness, hunger, and poverty in our state?

Mental Health-Messalonskee

These sophisticated questions are not extraordinary. Though they often remain at the tacit level in school, when we ask students to share what questions they have about themselves and the world, very powerful questions emerge. Examining the common questions generated from literally hundreds of middle school students in other schools and locations, we can see that when solicited, students ask provocative questions like:

  • When will we clean up the environment?
  • Why do we have hunger in the world when we have so much food?
  • Why do people hate people who are different?
  • What causes grown-ups to be so stressed?
  • Why do we get sick?
  • Why do we fight wars when they are so horrible?
  • Can we cure cancer and other major diseases?
  • Is space really going to be our next home?
  • Why does time fly?
  • What leads to poverty?

When, however, do our students have the chance to dig into any of these questions? When we ask these same students to identify school experiences that help them address similar life questions, they are stumped: “We don’t really deal with life stuff in school,” observed one middle schooler.

At Americans Who Tell The Truth, we believe that life ought to be the stuff of education. We further believe that our young people need multiple and steady opportunities to explore life issues using the knowledge of science, social studies, art, health, language arts and so on. Finally, we believe, and many contemporary conversations echo, that adolescents need to see themselves as active agents of their own learning. The once accepted largely teacher-directed model of learning has finally given way to models in which students are empowered to be in the driver’s seat of learning. Student-centered learning rests on the premise that students should be able to take an active role in determining what they study, how they study it and how they share what they come to learn.

The SSC takes that premise seriously. When young people are truly empowered in a meaningful learning experience that allows them to make a contribution to the welfare of the world, the results can be transformative. Young people come to see school learning as valuable, and they come to see themselves as playing a vital role in the welfare of others. It is our hope that the SSC will be among the most memorable and transformative middle school experiences students will recount and treasure long after they leave us in the middle school.

Leonard & Poster

Learning Through Engaged Citizenship

American Who Tell the Truth (AWWT) and the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE) partner to sponsor the Samantha Smith Challenge each year.

Mt. Ararat & Poster

Students:

  • Work independently, in small groups, or as a class
  • Choose a problem in their community, state, country or the world that they would like to address and help solve
  • Turn the problem into a question they can research
  • Register the project with Americans Who Tell the Truth
  • Research the issues within their question
  • Develop a way to address the problem using what they have learned in their research
  • Identify stakeholder(s) interested or connected with the problem
  • Create a presentation to share with stakeholders that outlines the issues and offers a course of action
  • Encourage the stakeholder(s) to work with them to build support for the course of action
  • Take action!
  • Create a 3-minute video that summarizes their work
2015 Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration—Students Share Their Work
2015 Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration—Students Share Their Work

 

KingImportant information for teachers:

Guidelines 2015/16 KEY DATES

● OCTOBER 22­23, 2015: Launch 2nd Annual SSC at MAMLE Conference.

● JANUARY 15, 2016: School and class registration deadline for SSC.

● FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016: SSC workshops/school visits.

● APRIL 1, 2016: Teachers confirm student participation in Samantha Smith Day and submit issue and progress reports.

● MAY 1, 2016: SSC projects & videos are submitted to AWTT.

● JUNE 6, 2016: Samantha Smith Day celebration for SSC participants from around the state of Maine. Once you have read through this document, feel free to contact us for advice, guidance, contacts to help you explore your issues, or anything else that will make your experience richer, more rewarding, and educational.

Contact people:

CONNIE CARTER: connie@americanswhotellthetruth.org

ROBERT SHETTERLY: robert@americanswhotellthetruth.org

Wondering how to get started?

The Americans Who Tell the Truth website has an entire section devoted to the SSC that includes ideas for helping students understand the impact a single person or a small group can have on society, as well as to motivate them to accept the Challenge. Additional inspiration can be found in the blog post from last spring that highlighted the Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration in the Hall of Flags at the State House.

Messalonskee & Poster

Important links and information can also be found on MAMLE’s webpage in the Samantha Smith Challenge section. Last year over 700 students across the state of Maine participated. We would love to double or triple that number this year!  Building a bridge from your classroom to the world by encouraging your students to become citizen problem-solvers is a fine way to address Maine’s Guiding Principles:

  • A clear and effective communicator
  • A self-directed and lifelong learner
  • A creative and practical problem solver
  • A responsible and involved citizen
  • An integrative and informed thinker

Click on this link to go the AWWT webpage to learn more and to register for the Samantha Smith Challenge.

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The Game is Afoot at Mt. Ararat MS!

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Sherlock Holmes uttered the famous line, “The game is afoot.” in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. “Games” is a concept everyone understands, and Team Androscoggin students from Mt. Ararat Middle School used it as a way to demonstrate their learning this spring.

Here’s a report on their Celebration of Learning from Nicole Karod, science teacher on Team Androscoggin:

On June 3rd, Androscoggin Team Students and Parents held a celebration of learning.  Our students have been working hard writing and publishing companion books to go with the book “The Other Side of the Sky” as well as creating and engineering board games around the topic of disease and the human body.  The work that these students have put in and the outcome they’ve accomplished is amazing.  In the afternoon students shared with their parents their hard work through an I-Spy challenge and playing board games.

The books were a reflection of a large unit on informational writing.  Social Studies themes were incorporated through the study of the book and students’ final product included many inserts about Afghanistan and the theme of the book.

Each game that was created was based around a disease that the students chose.  The games had to incorporate not only information about the disease but also be structured to relate to the disease and how it affects the human body.

Below is just a sample of our games and books from the event.

Students Hard at Work!
Students Hard at Work!
The Plague
The Plague
Rabies!
Rabies!
A Race to the Doctors! A game about strep throat
A Race to the Doctors!
A game about strep throat
Heart Attack!
Heart Attack!

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Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration

The first Monday in June is designated Samantha Smith Day in Maine. This year the first annual Samantha Smith Challenge celebration was held in the Hall of Flags at the Maine State House on Samantha Smith Day. Over 500 students from across Maine accepted the challenge put forth by American Who Tell the Truth and the Maine Association for Middle Level Education to choose a problem in their community, state, country or the world that they would like to address and help solve.

King Middle School sets up their project.
King Middle School sets up their project.

The Hall of Flags began to pulse with energy as students poured into the room to set up their projects. Posterboards, trifolds, iPads, laptops, and oil paintings appeared and transformed the Hall into a showcase of student curiosity, hard work, research skills, and commitment to addressing troublesome issues. These students tackled a myriad of topics: underage drinking, animal abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, cyberbullying, suicide, and harmful bacteria lurking right under our noses.

 

an image of student projects
Examples of projects
Students who accepted the Samantha Smith Challenge
Students who accepted the Samantha Smith Challenge

 

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Students explain what they learned and how they hope to address the issues.

A variety of distinguished visitors shared with students their stories related to becoming an active participant in addressing the problems of our communities–near and far.

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MC Dr. Nancy Doda

Dr. Nancy Doda, 2014 MAMLE Annual Conference keynoter and Brazee Award honoree, guided the festivities and introduced the honored guests.

Jane Smith, the mother of Samantha, congratulated students and reflected upon her daughter’s legacy to the world.

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Jane Smith, Samantha’s mother.

Former Maine legislator Elizabeth McTaggert introduced Senator Angus King who addressed the students via a video message.

Elizabeth McTaggert
Elizabeth McTaggert
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Senator Angus King, Senator (I) from Maine

Maine’s First Lady Ann LePage chatted with students and helped put into context the world in which Samantha Smith lived–the Cold War era.

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Ann Lepage chats with students from Lyman Moore Middle School.
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Ann LePage addresses the students who participated in the Samantha Smith Challenge.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap shared why his family moved to Maine during the Cold War and congratulated students for becoming involved with important issues in their community.

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Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap
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The Hall of Flags was packed!

Florence Reed, the founder of Sustainable Harvest International, shared how she was on a similar journey to the students to address real issues that affect communities and possibly the world at large.

image of Florence Reed
Florence Reed

The morning ended with each school receiving from Robert Shetterly of Americans Who Tell the Truth a poster of his painting of Samantha Smith.

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King Middle School, Portland
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Leonard Middle School, Old Town/RSU 34
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Lyman Moore Middle School, Portland
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Messalonskee Middle School, Oakland/RSU 18
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Mt. Ararat Middle School, Topsham/SAD 75
image of students from Whittier MS
Poland Community School

The teachers were also honored and received a thundering round of applause from their students.

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The Teachers

 

Lessons learned by participating in this type of project—quotes from the students. 

“I always have room to grow. I had thought about poverty as something very other than myself, something that didn’t really affect me. Turns out it’s not, and the kind of thinking I used to have was actually part of the problem because it prevented us from finding solutions.”  Leonard Middle School student

Doing suicide has been a tough challenge.  It’s been devastating reading each story and finding a solution.  Through the past couple of weeks on working on this, it’s been rough.” Lyman Moore Middle School student

“It was fun because it wasn’t “school work”; we got to go out in the community and change an issue that is affecting our area.”   Messalonskee Middle School student

“I learned that I didn’t give up after we had our first setback and two more after that.” York Middle School student

“Working on this project has made us come back to reality and realize that this is a bigger problem than we thought. It’s hard to believe that we have found over 110 cases of cyberbullying that end in suicide.  We were shocked by the large amount of teens (especially females) that have admitted to cyberbullying and/or being cyberbullied.  Cyberbullying is a huge epidemic of the modern day world. It has to stop now before we lose all sense of morality.”

Poland Community School students

One Student Can Make a Difference!

Lindsay Mahoney from Messalonskee reports how one student took on the Samantha Smith Challenge:
“How can we work together with the Maine Government to reduce homelessness, hunger, and poverty in our state?” That was the essential question for our Samantha Smith challenge. Throughout the research process, we discussed existing programs in Maine such as food stamp assistance, WIC, and SNAP. The “SNAP-Ed” challenge not only fit perfectly with what we were doing, it gave learners another opportunity to take action and make a difference in our community through authentic voice and choice!
Molly
Molly is a young lady who is no stranger to volunteering and providing food to those less fortunate than herself. She also enjoys cooking and experimenting with vegetarian meals for her and her family.
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The SNAP-Ed challenge was open to anyone in the state of Maine, and I could not be more proud that a middle school student accepted and won this challenge! Read more about the challenge and her recipe.
Maine State House
Maine State House
Participants in the Samantha Smith Challenge will be honored June 1, 2015 in the Hall of Flags at the State House in Augusta. First Lady Ann LePage, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, and Sustainable Harvest International founder Florence Reed will join in honoring the students. Over 600 middle grades students from across the state accepted the challenge. Kudos to all of them and their teachers!
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