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March 1999 - Issue No. #34 (p.17 - 18)
From October 30 to November 2, 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, devastating Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. On November 3, responsible English teachers around the world walked into their classrooms and taught this news story. They taught listening skills, using audio- and video-taped accounts of the event; they taught reading skills, using newspaper articles; they covered speaking skills, getting students to summarize what had happened, and plan what could be done; and they covered writing skills, summarizing the story and perhaps writing letters to the victims. At least, I know I did.
But is this where it ends? Was what happened in Central America no more than an interesting news story and material for an English class? Or is there a way to get the students to go beyond the classroom walls and become involved with an issue which might not be apparent in their immediate world but which nevertheless presents them with the opportunity and responsibility to act? Because I believe there is a way to do this, I decided to involve the students in my freshmen English class at the University of the Sacred Heart in a charity appeal to help the victims of Hurricane Mitch.
I cannot stress the students' participation enough. Even the idea came from them. After viewing a video news report, I asked them to discuss what we, as individuals (which we were) and not government organizations (which we were not) could do to help the victims of the hurricane. I didn't want it to be a hypothetical discussion. I wanted them to think about what they, themselves, were capable of doing.
At first, they came up with the usual, general answers: "We could send them things they need, such as soap, bandages, water." When I pressed them for more details, such as where they were going to get these things and/or the money to buy these things, one student said, "Well, we could collect money in the class." That started me thinking, "If every student brought in one bottle of water, we would have 30 bottles to send. If every freshman brought in one bottle of water, we would have 500 bottles. And if every student at the university brought in one bottle of water, we would have 2000 bottles. Each bottle would cost so little to each student, but what a large contribution it would make! And perhaps by asking students to contribute something as unusual as a bottle of water, it would pique their interest and they would be more willing to give, instead of being asked yet again to contribute money to charity.
Of course, there were limitations to be dealt with. The primary one was shipping. While bottles of water are common and inexpensive, they aren't light, and someone needs to be responsible for moving them. When I contacted the Nicaraguan and Honduran embassies, they said they weren't planning to send shipments of goods because of the expense, and recommended a cash donation. The Embassy of El Salvador, however, said they were sending a shipment in a few weeks. So, some shipping was available.
The second step was to get the project approved by the administration. Luckily, when I spoke to the Dean of Students, she was wholly supportive. Next, was getting the students involved. After all, it was they who would run the project, and if they were unenthusiastic, there was really no point. After discussing it in class, they decided they wanted to go ahead. This left us with details to decide: which countries to send aid to, and what kind of aid (soap, water, first aid kits...) to send. Because we'd been studying essay writing, I asked them to write an essay for homework, arguing what we should send, and where we should send it.
In the following class, we collected the essays. Two students read the choices out, while two other students recorded the results on the board. In this way, we reached a democratic decision about what to do. They decided to send bottles of water to all three countries. We would collect money as well as water to finance the shipping to Nicaragua and Honduras.
After that, the students made posters advertising the charity appeal, and a few volunteered to put these up around the university. The charity appeal was to run the following week. Through group discussions in class, the students decided when and where they would volunteer. They decided to work in teams at three different locations in the university. We would run the charity appeal only during lunch hour, from 12:10 to 1:30, as that was the most convenient time. Our aim was to catch students on their way out to lunch. That way, when they came back to the main building after lunch, they would be able to bring us a bottle of water.
If anything surprised me, it was the imbalance between how much water and how much money we collected. As mentioned, I thought an appeal for something as unusual as a bottle of water would be more attractive to the student body. There, I was wrong. We collected much more money (Y30,000) than water (96 bottles). The reasons I leave for the reader to decipher. Given these results, the class decided to send all the water to the El Salvadoran Embassy, and the money to the Embassies of Nicaragua and Honduras. What remained was getting the water and money to their destinations. I deposited the money to the designated bank accounts via bank transfer. I then enlisted the help of several students to carry the four boxes of water to the street. One student and I then went by taxi to the Embassy of El Salvador, where we delivered the goods. Finally, the task was complete.
Perhaps what is most important about a project like this is its relevance. Unfortunately, we live in a world that has no shortage of both natural and man-made disasters. This is the kind of project which can be done with most, if not all, classes to help the victims of such disasters. I believe in it because it is useful on several levels. It gives the teacher and students an opportunity to practice the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It also gives them the opportunity to discuss meaningful content within the confines of the classroom, and to get actively involved in a world event in a positive, constructive way. It requires a minimal contribution from each donor, and produces a result which is truly greater than the sum of its parts. A project like this touches more lives than just those of the students. By doing this, they are helping people in need who live halfway across the world.
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