April 12, 2010 by Julia Wasson
Filed under 1% for the Planet, Activists, Blog, Brazil, California, Children, China, Donations, Education, Environment, Front Page, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Profiles, Schools, Slideshow, South Africa, Students, Tonga, Volunteers
After the 1992 civil unrest in South Central Los Angeles, a small grassroots group began an after-school program to show the children living in the area that diverse members of their community cared about them. Teresa Henkle Langness, who later founded Full-Circle Learning, was among them. “Over time,” Langness says, “we began to see that what these children needed was to be a part of a community, to be a part of the solution, instead of feeling like victims of society’s ills.”
Langness adds, “When we began to incorporate character themes linked to local and global service within each lesson plan, the students’ scores suddenly began to leap. They became much better students, much better people. They began to teach their parents conflict resolution. Outside organizations in the community began to benefit from their work. Families wanted to replicate the model and began asking us for help in doing so.”
Today, Full-Circle Learning provides a full preschool-through-high school curriculum in 13 nations. Langness told Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), “The mission of Full-Circle Learning is to help young people embrace their role as humanitarians and change agents. We do this through educational programs that integrate and expand students’ character strength, academic excellence, creative capacities, and conflict resolution skills.”
We asked Langness to tell us more about the program, which depends on donations to provide services to the low-income children they serve around the globe. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
LANGNESS: Every learning unit has character and community service as the bookends. The skills they’re learning become vehicles for transforming the self and transforming the community. We need to look at our ability to problem-solve, to collaborate, and to let our curiosity and creativity be guided by our altruistic instinct.
In Full-Circle Learning, we measure these altruistic identities even while we are teaching the skills that allow young people to grow up as collaborators, thinking of ways to apply these skills to reduce worldwide pandemics, to prevent wars, to understand issues as important as climate change.
Within every Full Circle Learning curriculum you will find activities that address environmental themes, poverty, public health, girls’ education or other current social themes affecting humanity around the world.
We train teachers in the strategies to create a learning environment and a supportive peer culture. We help students become benevolent world leaders —in their classroom, in their families, in their communities, and in their work communities — leaders whose work is not driven by ego, but by compassion.
BPGL: How do you do this?
LANGNESS: One way is by connecting students with classrooms around the world. Whenever they do a local project, they also do a global service project.
At the same time, students in America will be doing a project on hunger in their community, or studying their environment. The students correspond back and forth, challenging each other.
They begin to see global issues through a local lens, yet honor those across the ocean who are addressing similar problems. They don’t grow up thinking that they have all the answers — or, that they have all the problems.
BPGL: When did you begin to involve schools from other countries in the project?
LANGNESS: I had some foster children in other countries who I was just helping with a little bit of funding and writing letters to them. My own children were growing up and didn’t have time to write letters anymore, so I said to our students, “Would you please write a letter to So-and-So in Kenya or to this girl in Indonesia and give her a little encouragement?”
The kids overseas would take these letters to their school, and would send us back artifacts. We would then do a project for them and send them a challenge. And these back-and-forth challenges began to become a deep and rich part of the learning.
I realized, what was helping these students overseas and in the American classroom to feel really engaged was to realize that skills needed to address problems in an urban city in the United States are really not that much different from those needed in their own communities.
They may be different on the surface, but when you really go down to the core, what we’re talking about are basic human needs. They can learn so much by honoring the wisdom and the tenacity of students in other countries facing similar issues in different ways.
Now we’re in 13 countries on a regular basis with global exchanges. Of 26 projects, there are some projects we manage and help provide funding for, and others we just provide mentorship, training, and the curriculum. Still others, we just provide online mentorship or whatever is needed.
Very few of those we serve, in the United States or abroad, have funding to pay for what we give. If a school can pay for the printing cost or the books, that’s about as good as it gets. Mostly they can’t reimburse us for that either.
BPGL: Are all of the overseas schools connected with a U.S. partner classroom?
LANGNESS: The curriculum states that they be connected to a school in U.S. But some connections happen more smoothly than others. In some cases, we might recommend that they partner with a different country — maybe somebody who already speaks the same language or somebody for whom, if they decide to physically mail something, the postage might be less. Everybody is connected with somebody, but not all the countries are equally responsive.
BPGL: Which grades participate?
LANGNESS: It can be anybody, in preschool through high school. For instance, in Tonga, some of the teachers are more facile with English and with this model of education.
So some of them have taken the lead and said, “Our grade level will be the one to send something this time.”
Some others hang back and do more local projects. It’s up to the school to take a certain amount of initiative in determining how they will do it. Smaller schools always do a school-wide approach.
BPGL: When you talk about local projects, are those projects connected to your curriculum?
LANGNESS: Absolutely. When you do a Full-Circle Learning project, it should permeate the culture of the school. For example, at the school in Zambia, from the minute they received the training, they changed everything that they were doing.
Every class has a new identity. As second graders, you might call them the Forgivers, if they’re struggling with conflict resolution. Kindergartners might be the Helpers. Fourth graders might be the Humanitarians. And the things they do in the community to connect to their learning have some bearing on the identity the teachers are fostering in the students.
If you have guest presenters from the community, you showcase their careers in relation to the particular habit-of-heart, as we call it.
BPGL: What is a “habit-of-heart”?
LANGNESS: It’s a character trait, but we also want them to know it’s something that they can make habitual — not an innate virtue that they do or do not have.
Each habit-of-heart relates to what they will eventually do with their lives, to the skills they learn throughout their school days, to their home life, and to what they might do for the theme we’re studying.
The second graders in the Healers class in one of our Los Angeles charter schools did a homelessness project. They had read Finding Grace: The Face of America’s Homeless, an award-winning photography book by Lynn Blodgett that featured pictures of homeless people.
So they learned to make beautiful portraits of their favorite homeless face from the book. They put that on the front of a sandwich sign. These were homeless people from all over the country, but a lot of them were from the local area where they live.
On the back of their sandwich board, they put the real picture from the book. And they marched with 17,000 people to advocate for the visibility of homeless people and for their plight.
Gentrification of the downtown area was displacing a lot of homeless people who had nowhere to go. Many of the old hotels, which functioned as shelters, were being closed or upgraded. Now the homeless were pushed out onto the street, and the police were putting them in jail. People were asking the City Council to find a better solution.
So the children looked at the statistics of homelessness in the city. How many were homeless? How many were homeless because of joblessness? How many because of mental illness? How many were elders who couldn’t afford housing?
The children met as a group and discussed what they would do if they were the City Council. They wrote essays. They turned the statistics into bar charts. They took the portraits and made color Xeroxes. They put these all in a book.
They had met the mayor on their march, and he had patted them on the head. Later, they sent one copy of their book to the mayor and reminded him of this challenge to do something about homelessness. They sent the other copy to their global partner in India. And they said, “Here’s what we’re trying to do to help the poor in our community. What are you doing?”
BPGL: What did the children in India do?
LANGNESS: Their habit-of-heart theme had been advocacy. In India, the children had been studying respect — and sympathy, because a girl in their class had passed away. After receiving this challenge, they talked about who in their community was poor.
In India, of course, there is no safety net; your children are your social security plan. So if you lose a child or are childless, you basically grow old and poor with nowhere to go.
They decided to do their project for orphaned grandparents. They wrote a beautiful book of essays about respect and sympathy, and they made beautiful artwork with recycled objects. They turned pencil shavings into flowers. They used toothpicks and types of beans that we don’t have here, and flower petals — everything you can imagine — to make beautiful pieces of art.
Then they put some of the art in the book that they sent back to America. Some they put in books for the orphaned grandparents. They made food. They made music. They exchanged kisses for blessings, because the grandparents have nobody to bless.
The Polaroids they put in the books brought us to tears: They are bowing down on the ground, prostrating themselves, and then getting up and giving kisses to the orphaned grandparents. And the grandparents are blessing them.
The teacher in Los Angeles kept the book in the classroom for a long time, because the students wanted to go back and look at that book again and again. They all wanted to learn the Tamil language and get on a plane and go to India. It was so profound to see what effect it had on them.
BPGL: How does participation in Full-Circle Learning affect the children you work with?
LANGNESS: This is an area of gang conflict, not an easy area of town. That’s why the charter school is where it is. Some of the children had been homeless. So it was a really interesting experience. It’s so much easier to get outside yourself and beyond your own problems when you see how children across the world are dealing with poverty in their communities.
We talk a lot about that. We say, “Here’s how you can afford to travel: Go to college, then join the Peace Corps.” A lot of them have the idea that the only way they will ever do anything is to join the military and get their education that way.
The parents of the original program challenged us to start a charter school so that their children could sustain this kind of education throughout the school day. We told them how much work it is to start a charter school, especially a K-8 charter school.
They said, “That’s okay. We’ll help. We’ll be the founding families.”
And we said, “You realize, by the time we finish this process, your children will no longer be young enough to attend it.”
And they said, “That’s okay too.” So their children have done the work to start it. They’re now in high school, and they are the Alumni Club. They help enroll students, do outreach, and do service projects.
BPGL: How is Full-Circle Learning most different from other programs?
LANGNESS: Schools spend so much focus on teaching students what to learn, and in some cases teaching them how to learn, but not why to learn. We give students a purpose for learning.
Maybe that’s the distinction between this and other models. Not only does it help us address the world’s problems, it also helps us unlock the potential in the child.
I have a story to illustrate this. A guest presenter talking to second graders was linking compassion with his work as an orthopedic surgeon. He talked about what he does, fixing broken arms and legs and so forth. He also talked about the math and science classes he took.
A year later, a journalist interviewed a third-grade girl and asked what she wanted to be. She said, “Oh, I want to be an orthopedic surgeon, of course.”
He asked, “Where did you get that idea?”
And she said, “We have a lot of people coming through here, but this one presentation helped me understand my interest in math and science.”
Now this girl was from a foster home of nine kids. She was very shy. She had no role models at all who had anything to do with math or science, or anything academic. She said, “I thought these were just throwaway subjects, and I was never going to use them. Now I understand why I need to apply myself. Now I know my purpose in life.”
Years went by. She was very quiet about this. Her mother called me when the girl was in the ninth grade. She said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. This girl has found an article in the paper about a new orthopedic magnet high school, and she wants me to enroll her. I had no idea she has an interest in this, but their enrollment is closed.”
I said, “You didn’t know why she’s been working so hard in math and science all these years? Take her down there and show them her grades. They’ll enroll her.”
And they did. Now this girl is in a premed program, and is getting scholarships to be an orthopedic doctor.
So that’s the example of linking the purpose in life and the altruistic inclinations of the heart with plugging somebody into the community in ways that match their natural gifts. At an age where you don’t know the possibilities yet, to explore as many of those possibilities as you can gives you a better impetus for choosing something that fits later in life.
BPGL: How are the kids in your program doing on state exams?
LANGNESS: The district challenges charter schools to meet and exceed the test scores of the surrounding schools with a similar demographic, and they challenge us to bring the scores up about 4 percent a year.
In our charter school, Full-Circle Learning Academy, we got a baseline score in year one. In year two, we took the exams again. The scores went up 145 points. That’s about 19 percent. That’s almost unheard of.
BPGL: What are your fund-raising needs right now?
LANGNESS: Both the international projects and the local projects have dire needs right now. Making a contribution to the general fund would allow us to support both and to allocate the funds based on how much comes in.
Publisher’s Note: Full-Circle Learning is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Donations by U.S. taxpayers are deductible to the fullest extent allowed under the law. Donations may be made on the FCL website.
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