HK International School students learn the value of helping others

A course at HKIS teaches students how to change the world and themselves, writes Andrea Zavadszky

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 10:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 10:29am

When humanities teacher Marty Schmidt read a report that, according to the World Health Organisation, depression was the top cause of illness and disability for teenagers around the world, it became a call to arms. He related the news to the sorry state of the world's environment.

Something was out of kilter, and he saw a need for a form of social conscience education. Schmidt, who teaches at Hong Kong International School, thought that students should consider their roles and responsibilities in society, and receive an emotionally engaged understanding ofthe world.

Hope emerges from the class itself. It's an experience that can be truly transforming
Marty schmidt, founder of the humanities in action course

Gradually developed over more than a decade through Schmidt's day-to-day teaching experience, as well as research for his PhD, the result is a Humanities in Action course, which lasts 80 minutes a day for 180 days.

According to the 14-year-olds in his charge, the course has transformed the way they look at the world. As the students develop self-awareness, their perspectives change. They learn that they are valuable human beings who can help others.

"Knowing yourself is the most important thing in life," says Helena Lee Joh-yun, who is about to enter Year 10 at HKIS. "You need to know that your purpose in life is to feel happy and fulfilled. You need to know what you love, and this course will help you to find out who you are. It has definitely inspired me to become a person with empathy and care."

Students say that before they took up the class, they lived in a bubble or wore blinkers. They either didn't care about all the problems in the world, or thought they could do nothing to make things better.

Schmidt uses lessons on genocide, globalisation, and the environmental crisis as "three effective needles" to burst this bubble.

"Students need emotional engagement in school. We chose issues that are highly emotive, like genocide. We get students involved off campus: we go to an orphanage in China, and do refugee-run simulations. We expose them to the sufferings of the world," Schmidt says.

To Yashvaran Bardoloi, 14, the toughest part was "coming to grips with the nature of the course" and being overwhelmed by learning about tragic events.

Inevitably, as the students' awareness of social issues grows, they want to act on it. "They come to believe that this world is not static, but can change, and that they have the power to do it," Schmidt says. "There is a sense of awakening to their own potential. Hope emerges from the class itself. It's an experience that can be truly transforming."

The course tackles the big questions in life, those to which people often feel there are no answers.

Helena says the most difficult part of the course "was asking myself world-view questions, such as, is the group more important, or the individual? Is violence a natural part of who we are, or is it something we learn from society? And many more similar questions."

The students also participate in activities such as visiting a home for the elderly or an orphanage, cleaning up a beach, and a simulation to show what life is like for people displaced from their homes.

For Yashvaran, the orphanage visit was "a profoundly moving experience. We can't really change their lives, but by giving them some kind of care and assistance, we were contributing in some small way."

Helena says she found the "Elixir Project", which aims to bring about change in society, life altering. She chose to work with refugees, and couldn't stop smiling at the thought that she, at age 14, could change lives.

She raised HK$5,636 and spread awareness about the refugees' plight.

"I loved the idea that we can make a difference in the world. I was able to organise myself, learn how to interact with officials, have responsibility, think innovatively, and mostly importantly, do something that I love," she says.

"Now I have a dream career. I want to help refugees, so I've decided to be a doctor, and work with NGOs in refugee camps."

For Helena the most important message of the course came out of the globalisation section about interdependence.

"This course has taught me that we can't live by ourselves. We need to help each other and share responsibility," she says.

On the course, students participate in speeches, essay writing, and class and private discussions about what they are learning. At the end of the year, they have to write an essay about their world view, and they are graded on that.

Schmidt says that schools tend to focus on competition, which makes it hard for students to confront deeper issues. He is sceptical about how long the course will keep spurring the students into action, although he is sure they will remember it.

The students are positive, too. "I'd definitely encourage students to take this course," Yashvaran says. "It is a rare opportunity to combine academic rigour with life-changing experiences."