Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Watering the Planet

At NCS, we like to kick off each year in the high school with a fully-integrated problem-based unit.  To define my terms:  by "integrated," I mean, "something that draws from all the disciplines at one time."  And "problem-based" simply means that we look to real events and current problems for our inspiration. We cancel regular classes to ask the students to study in groups, learn like "real people" learn (you find what you need and put that knowledge to work on a real issue), and come up with realistic solutions that can be implemented by NCS students for our own community.

Four years ago we attempted our first problem-based unit by asking the high schoolers to tackle the problem in Darfur and suggest something we could do. They met with lowcal experts in related fields and organized, managed, and executed a public awareness event about the Darfur problem. I was super proud of their groundwork in laying a foundation for future successful units. (I have an album of photos from the event on Facebook.)

Our next project, in 2008, divided up the students into little families and arbitrarily assigned one member of each "family" a chronic disease. This very-real investigation into the health care crisis sharpened the kids' understanding of the health care debate that had shaped the McCain-Obama election campaigns. A real-world simulation powerfully made its point.   

Last year we focused on the problems that the elderly face. That project was short, but it nicely dove-tailed into supporting the widows' ministry that the NCS seniors manage as their senior project. (If you know of any local widows who need help, contact the school office or one of the seniors.)

This year, the faculty came up with another global issue for the students to sink their teeth into:  Water.

  • Did you know that half of all patients in hospitals world-wide are there due to water-borne illness?
  • Did you know that 72% of the water-gathering necessary in developing cultures where water is scarce is done by women
  • And that the hundreds of thousands of hours of lost productivity caused by this basic drudgery for women is equal to the COMBINED productivity of EVERY employee at EVERY Wal-Mart, McDonald's, UPS, Target, and Kroger store each week?
  • Did you know that the average person in the developing world has only 31 liters of water a day for washing, cooking, and drinking?  In contrast, the average American uses 200 or more liters of water just to shower, plus more for drinking and cooking. Your bathtub holds about 150 liters. 
  • Every 20 seconds a child dies of a water-borne illness like diarrhea.
  • Nearly 75% of the water usage in the world goes to agriculture. Many countries literally waste water to grow crops or care for livestock.
  • It takes about 1,000 liters of water to grow a kilo of rice or wheat. It takes about 13,000 liters to get a kilo of beef. 
  • In fact, every day, YOUR American food (a diet rich in meat) costs about 5,000 liters of water to produce.  That's in addition to the 200 liters you used in the shower this morning.
  • Only a tiny percentage of the global water projects (drilling wells, installing water treatment pods) are maintained or inspected once the rich benefactors do the initial installation.  
  • Water scarcity is a very local problem. It's hard to get water to places where it's scarce.  It's also a complex problem, complicated by economic, political, scientific, and biological factors.
If you'd like to know more about the water problem, the UNICEF site is very useful.

Today, we kicked off the unit by telling the high schoolers that a water main break had rendered the building's water sources temporarily unsafe. Meanwhile we invited them all to partake of a special snack break stocked with lots of dry, salty foods.  

Debbie started quoting facts and figures like I've listed above and we divided the kids into 4 research groups and handed them stacks of articles to read.  Before lunch, everyone gathered to pour 31 liters into a bathtub behind the science classroom.  That's not much water ... not when a bathtub holds 150+ liters. Yet that's the average water consumption per person per day in the developing world. 

By the end of the day, everyone was thoughtful, tired, and focusing on solutions.  I think some good ideas will emerge. Some great charities out there are putting easy-to-maintain water treatment kids on the ground all over Africa and India.  Julianna is going back to Kenya next summer to help drill wells. Many of the kids really want to help get the word out about the problem at events like the Midnight Flight in Anderson next month.

Kingdom work.  It's not rocket science, usually.
It's hearing about a problem .... caring about people's bodies AND souls.... doing something to push back the brokenness of this world.... 

Just do it. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Excuses, Excuses Excuses: How Parents Sometimes Undermine Character Development in Their Children

The following article was first published in Tri-State Family Magazine (Distributed by The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, WV). Copyright © 2007 by Dennis E. Bills.
“I am not trying to defend what my child did, BUT . . .” or “I know what my child did was wrong, BUT. . .” As a school administrator, I have heard these words all too many times. Few parents like to think that their child has a behavior problem, but parents who excuse misbehavior risk stunting character development. An important part of character development is learning to take full responsibility for mistakes, accidents, errors, and especially wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, children do not need help excusing bad behavior. They are adept at either explaining it away (“My fist slipped and I accidently hit him”) or generously sharing blame with others (“He hit me first”). Parents who also make excuses are subtly teaching their children that such behavior is not really so bad, and that they can get away with it regardless of their own culpability.
There are several reasons why some parents excuse their children so quickly and easily. Some parents who believe their children are unfairly accused may be overly protective, resulting in blind defensiveness. Other parents cannot accept that alleged misbehavior is really all that bad, failing to understand that perfect children are few and far between. Still other parents are simply unwilling or unable to face their child’s problems. Often they observe the same problems at home and feel helpless to deal with them. They find it easier to deny or excuse misbehavior than to address it head on. Parental excuses for misbehavior usually fall into three categories:

Blame Circumstances

“If such and such had not happened, my child would not have misbehaved.” Other versions include “My child is rowdy because he’s not been feeling well,” “He is disruptive because he is bored,” “If the notes had been sent home on time, she would not have cheated,” and “She hit Sam because they were sitting too close.” While circumstances may sometimes contribute to misbehavior, they are not themselves the cause of it. At some point, children must learn they are responsible for their actions regardless of the circumstances surrounding them.

Blame Other People

“I know my child did wrong, but what are you going to do about that other child?” A common ploy of those who wish to excuse their child’s behavior is to point out what was wrong about another child’s behavior. They do this for two reasons: 1) to minimize their own child’s blame, and 2) to satisfy some notion of justice. While it is important for children to see discipline as fair and impartial, fairness is not nearly as important as taking full responsibility for one’s own actions, regardless of what punishment befalls another. The thought that someone else is not getting what they deserve too easily distracts from the full weight of one’s own guilt. A child who is focused on “fairness” will not be willing to face his or her own responsibility. Likewise, parents who are preoccupied with fairness are stealing from their children even more valuable lessons about personal accountability.

Blame the Brain

“My child has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).” When a parent announces this to me, I know to brace myself for two things: 1) the child will likely have behavior issues, and 2) the parents have already begun the process of excusing them. Now, I have no doubt that a real, organic condition known as ADD exists. However, the label is often bandied about apart from a professional diagnosis or without adequate exploration of its causes. ADD is a label for a particular set of symptoms, such as “does not pay attention” and “does not sit still.” It is a description of, but not an excuse for, behavior problems. Even professionals are coming to realize that ADD is often an unhelpful and overly diagnosed label. ADD cannot and should not be made to imply that morally wrong behavior is acceptable, that such children are incapable of doing right, that there might not be additional reasons for misbehavior, and that normal, consistent discipline is inappropriate.
Most parents work very hard to teach children right from wrong, but sometimes they undermine their own efforts by making excuses for them. Parents who excuse misbehavior are not teaching their children to take responsibility for their actions. Children who do not take responsibility for their actions will not adequately recognize bad behavior or have incentive to change. Parents will do better for their children if they help them identify and take responsibility for the full measure of their own wrongdoing—without making excuses.

Post-Publication Note: Fairness and justice is a crucial issue for parents to teach their children. Unfair discipline can cause bitterness and hopelessness within a child, so I believe that parents should fight for fairness in discipline in schools. However, my experience has led me to believe that "fairness" can very frequently be used to deny or distract from the culpability that a child bears for his or her own behavior. A best case scenario would would include encouraging children to take full responsibility for their own behavior while fighting for fairness in school discipline.