I believe that one person can make a difference, and, more important, when we make a difference for one, we are making a difference for the network of individuals that person will encounter. . . . We never know the span of our reach. Conversely, when we do not step in to make a positive change, we are allowing the reverse to happen. It is the bystanders of history and the notion of tolerance that have allowed many human made tragedies to be all the more tragic.
—Dana Nerenberg, principal, Hyde-Addison Elementary School, Washington, D.C.
Many schools say that they teach their students to go out and make a difference in the world when they grow up. Some schools encourage their students to believe that they can make a difference at any age, starting right now. As I started interviewing teachers, principals, and students around the country last spring in an effort to help share good practices and lessons learned across the growing network of Ashoka Changemaker Schools, I noticed that in places where teachers believe that children can make a difference, students don’t wait to graduate to get to it! Is it because their teachers’ enthusiasm and confidence are contagious? Or is there more to it?
My conversation with Dana Nerenberg, principal of Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C., whose motto is “Making a World of Difference,” highlighted how the combination of cultivating empathy and nurturing leadership opportunities in school through student-led school meetings can unleash positive ripple effects well beyond the classroom.
Hyde-Addison is one of the most geographically diverse schools in the nation’s capital. It strives to cultivate empathy and understanding across different cultures and between students. Wednesday all-school meetings are an example of the kind of creative leadership opportunities kids there have come to enjoy. No matter what the weather, “We like to hold [the meetings] outside,” Nerenberg explained.
Some Tips and Tricks for Organizing Student-Led School Meetings
Each week, a different grade leads the meeting. Those students are responsible for coming up with a greeting for the whole school to say. Next, they share with the rest of the school something that they’ve recently done or have been working on. Sometimes this is a trip; other times it is a subject that they’ve been studying. A pre-K class shared “what makes them happy.” Another class talked about “being superhero
readers.” Lastly, they lead an activity. Activities can range from singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to participating in different variations of follow the leader to leading everyone in a line dance. The meeting then ends with the principal making announcements. Apart from this, the entire event is student-led.
So, how do you get 340 elementary school kids to behave well as a group—outside—to effectively hold a meeting all together? As Nerenberg explained, “Part of why it is successful is that the kids really own it. They love it!” The other part is that “it is ritualized, so they know what to expect. Another trick is to have students sit with their ‘buddy class.’ Early in the school year, each class is paired with a ‘buddy class’ that is a couple of years older. Having younger kids sit with older kids at student-led events seems to help everyone maintain their best behavior.”
2nd Grade Social Entrepreneurs on the Rise
As I peppered Nerenberg with questions about making a difference and what drove her and her students, she shared a story of twin boys in 2nd grade. They noticed that the Boys & Girls Club in their neighborhood was littered with trash. They organized an effort to clean up the club, which quickly grew into a larger neighborhood wide initiative and an official organization called “The Boys’ Trash Club.” As a result, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) in Washington, D.C. asked the twins to give a speech about their service work to a group of about 60 adults at the 2014 DPR Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. When their mother sat down with them to help prepare their brief remarks, she asked if they were going to be all right talking to such a large crowd. The boys responded, “Yeah, it’s just like sharing at school, but with grownups, right?”
The combination of cultivating empathy and nurturing creative leadership opportunities in school, no matter how seemingly small, can unleash positive ripple effects well beyond school walls. That experience and those ripple effects just may last a lifetime—you never know the span of their reach.